Martha Stephens’ sumptuous queer coming-of-age drama highlights the restrictive pain of societal repression.
Anybody who grew up in a remotely rural area and left will tell you, though there are many downsides, nothing is quite as beautiful as an open field. This is the beauty of Martha Stephens’ To The Stars: the shots that make up the film are long, and occasionally wide, suggesting that the farmland of Oklahoma goes on forever. To the characters in the film, it does. They live in a world that is at the same time massive and inescapably small.
A queer coming of age drama filled with remarkable moments, To The Stars is about the yearning of small-town people. It’s mainly concerned with the yearning of two young women in a small town in the early ‘60s: Iris (Moonrise Kingdom‘s Kara Hayward), who yearns for the love of a young farmhand, and Maggie (Liana Liberato), a recent transplant to this small town, who yearns for her family to accept that she is a lesbian, and compulsively lies to gain the acceptance of her new peers. These two young women come together, not for a normal coming of age adventure, but simply as two teenagers who are scared and confused. Hayward and Liberato are great as young women who both want to leave their unremarkable surroundings while still fearing what could happen if they leave the small places that they know.
The only adult yearning comes from Iris’ mother Francie (Jordana Spiro), who spends the film in various states of drunkenness, verbally abusing her husband and trying to seduce the same farmhand that her daughter is pining after. Spiro’s stumbling performance shows the future of many of the young women in this town: married to a stoic farmer, repeating gossip with other housewives over cigarettes at a kitchen table, wondering how she ended up as another in a long line of housewives.
The film comes to a head when Maggie’s friend Hattie (Sophi Bairley) tells her mother that she saw Maggie and the town’s hairdresser, Hazel (Adelaide Clemens), having sex. It’s here that the men of the town, who until this point have only been the strong, silent men you find in small rural towns, turn into terrifying totems of homophobia. The scene is masterfully shot and scored by Andrew Reed and Heather MacIntosh, respectively, though Reed’s sumptuous black-and-white cinematography in its festival run is frustratingly stifled by a color presentation for wide release.
As they drive the hairdresser out of town, they become a force of anger and misunderstanding, damaging her car and threatening her with baseball bats. Clemens is phenomenal as a person that is both terrified and resigned to her life as a lesbian living in secret.
The film’s best performance, however, comes from Arrested Development and Veep alum Tony Hale. Fans of Hale’s sitcom work will be thoroughly surprised by his quiet, brooding performance as Maggie’s father Gerald, a photographer for an agricultural magazine and a classic abusive father. While the other adult men in the film stick to the archetype of a strong silent man, Hale brings a quiet vulnerability and regret that humanizes his monstrous actions. He’s a man stuck in a cycle of abuse, trying to balance his love of his daughter with his homophobic beliefs. It’s just one of many tiny brushes of elegance Stephens brings to the proceedings.
They live in a world that is at the same time massive and inescapably small.
There are traces of John Hughes and Happy Days, but Stephens’ rural world is not a cartoon. The jocks aren’t cartoonish apes, and the mean girls aren’t evil harpies. Everyone, no matter how monstrous, gets to be a real human being. People become monsters when they’re scared of new things. For the population of this small town, the only thing that’s for sure is that the fields of Oklahoma act like a protective bubble, shielding them from the outside world and all its unknowns. To The Stars asks us to watch what would happen when that bubble pops and the unknown rides in. Even if it drives a yellow station wagon.
To The Stars is currently available on demand.