Welcome to Oklahoma.
The whole of Martha Stephens‘ To the Stars can be summed up by a line in the director’s statement of intent: “Longing is part of the human condition: the ever-present awareness of what’s still missing from our lives.” It’s true. We all long for something. Sometimes it’s for something as simple and direct as love. Sometimes it’s for something as complex and harrowing as equality. We long to be seen as who we are and often for the escape that’s necessary to allow it to happen far away from where we’re stuck today. And while Stephens also mentions the indelible effect mid-twentieth century America’s aesthetic and soul had on her growing up, she couldn’t have chosen a more perfect era to project the face of a woman’s longing.
This moment in our country’s history placed a lot of undue stress upon women to ensure they became the kind of woman men demanded. (I say as though the patriarchy no longer maintains its systemic stranglehold right now.) You must be feminine and alluring, but also chaste. Everything a man wanted from women privately was everything she couldn’t be publically—maybe during courtship, but definitely not after. Fulfill the male fantasy that he was all she desired. Don’t act on it. Just play the game. He could act on it because it was his “right” as a man. She’s merely an object at his whim. Be sexy … to a point. Be willful … to a point. He’ll let you know when you’ve gone too far.
Screenwriter Shannon Bradley-Colleary draws the suffering at the core of such oppression into every corner of the small Oklahoma town of To the Stars‘ setting. There are the housewives who regret getting pregnant young and thus anchoring themselves to a yokel with no aspirations of being anything more than who he was the day they met. There are the popular girls at school following in those footsteps without being cognizant of the mistake inherent to letting your existence hinge upon the unknown future of a football player whose stock plummets the moment he graduates. And there are the loners devouring art from afar in the hopes of staying as anonymous as possible until they can simply vanish without a trace to become the women they never could here.
Iris Deerborne (Kara Hayward) is the latter—a bookworm who knows every answer yet stays quiet due to the ridicule already endured from sexually abusive boys and narcissistic girls. She gets it at home too thanks to a mother (Jordana Spiro‘s Francie) desperate to vicariously live out her own fantasies despite her daughter being nothing like those dreams. Maybe if she conformed, both venues would be happier. But would she? It’s no wonder then that she eats alone at lunch and sneaks out at night to float in a pond no one dares visit because of a recent suicide. The kids can call her names, her alcoholic mom can wax on about the prom, and she will grin and bear it until she can leave them all behind.
If not for fate intervening, that’s exactly what she might have done. Maggie Richmond (Liana Librato) therefore changes everything with a thrown rock. The first person that’s ever stood up for her besides her beaten down and tired father (Shea Whigham‘s Hank), this newcomer from Kansas City proves an anomaly that cannot yet be trusted. Why? Because she’s exactly the type of girl a clique of teens led by Clarissa Dell (Madisen Beaty) would seek to recruit into their horde of Iris-haters. One act of kindness doesn’t change that reality. Two doesn’t either. Maybe three will, though. Maybe Iris’ lack of vanity will allow her to see Maggie is just humoring Clarissa and company to have fun at their expense while also keeping their claws retracted.
This also means Maggie can serve as a go-between of sorts who’s able to understand Iris’ plight and help her overcome the inherent introversion that it has manifested. She becomes a lifeline that works to coax Iris out of her shell without forcing her to change anything about who she is inside. How Bradley-Colleary, Stephens, and the two young actors breathe life into this dynamic, however, isn’t exactly how you’d think from watching countless ugly duckling stories in the past. They know that a physical makeover might turn heads, but the character’s already established personality is what has to keep those people looking. And Maggie can’t seem wholly selfish or wholly opportunistic. We can’t think she has ulterior motives. We need to know her empathy is born from experience.
Every action they take must therefore come with an excess of trepidation. No matter how much their friendship blossoms and how much they know about each other without needing to speak it aloud, both have to eventually go home and suffer the type of atmosphere that can take the wind right out of your sails via a silent glare. While Iris must combat the psychological assault her mother provides by acting like she’s a disappointment, Maggie is battling on both an emotional and physical front. She too has a mother who treats her like a doll to make into a woman (Malin Akerman), but her father isn’t conversely protective. No, Mr. Richmond (Tony Hale very much against type) is a domineering man who’s let upholding reputation trump love.
I won’t spoil the impetus of that fear-induced rage (although the time period should make it somewhat obvious) because the filmmakers know how to wield its revelation as a potent turning point wherein Maggie needs Iris to provide the support she gave at the beginning. Just like Iris was skeptical, however, so too is her friend since being open about her secret has more serious ramifications than being a social pariah. Suddenly a veil is lifted to rework what we know of everyone on-screen from Francie’s alcohol-fueled advances on her husband’s teenage farmhand (Lucas Jade Zumann‘s Jeff) to what made the local hairdresser (Adelaide Clemens‘ Hazel) move here. Those “harmless” adolescent squabbles between cliques make way for the adults to reveal how violent those intolerant sentiments can evolve.
You start seeing everything under a vastly different filter during the third act as stakes rise and true selves reveal. Actions have consequences and it’s not until the unthinkable version of the latter arrives that some finally look within to see the error of their ways. And who’s the one that’s able to teach them? Iris. Without changing who she is at the start, Hayward merely amplifies all that the character has been with the louder voice Maggie provided as a weapon to be better than society’s narrow-minded ceiling. It’s okay to tell the status quo they’re wrong. It’s okay to carve your own path. It’s okay to make loved ones suffer through your absence like you suffered through their presence. That’s a lesson too many still need.
[1-3] Photo Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films