Melodrama has somewhat become a relic of cinema’s past. To be sure, we get melodramatic movies still being released, but true melodrama has largely gone away. The new movie To the Stars seeks to bring melodramas back, and up until the tail end of the third act, it succeeds. Some solid cinematography, a really strong turn from Liana Liberato, and even a small sense of mystery buoys it for a good long while. Then, as it comes in for a landing, the wheels fall off and it crashes in a big way. It’s a shame, too, as it prevents the flick from earning a recommendation that it had in the bag, moments before.
The film is a drama, set in 1960’s Oklahoma, and specifically a very small town. It’s the sort of town where everyone is under scrutiny, the folks consider themselves god fearing, and judgment comes quick. For years, withdrawn teenager Iris Deerborne (Kara Hayward) has endured bullying from her classmates, as well as alcohol-fueled attention from her troubled mother Francie Deerborne (Jordana Spiro). Alone, she eventually is able to find some solace, as well as friendship, when a new girl arrives in town. Maggie (Liberato) is, charismatic, mysterious, and unlike anyone she’s ever met. Maggie sees Iris for who she truly is and begins to get her to come out of her shell. At the same time as Iris is coming into her own, questions about Maggie’s mysterious pass linger in the air. Eventually, some details are revealed, resulting in extreme actions not just by Maggie, but among various members of the town, as well. Martha Stephens directs a screenplay by Shannon Bradley-Colleary, with music by Heather McIntosh, as well as cinematography by Andrew Reed. Supporting players include Malin Akerman, Madisen Beaty, Adelaide Clemens, Tony Hale, Shea Whigham, and more.
Liana Liberato is very good here, but the film wraps up in such an unsatisfying way that you can’t help but feel a bit let down in the end. There’s a moment, one which I won’t spoil, where there’s a clear turn in the narrative. It’s a point that you can tell things might go off the rails. Then, it just keeps going. This isn’t even in a bizarre and unique way, but in an overly dramatic and somewhat mean way. The rest of the movie just doesn’t quite mesh with it. This hurts Liberato’s touching work, as well as what Kara Hayward is doing, too. They just can’t compete with this glaring third act flaw.
To the Stars is a nice showcase for Liberato and director Martha Stephens, but they’re just undone by the choices made in Shannon Bradley-Colleary’s script. Had Stephens gotten perhaps one more pass on the screenplay from Bradley-Colleary, it’s possible that the rougher edges could have been smoothed over. That probably wouldn’t have solved the third act issues completely, but it might have made it just sturdy enough to be worthy of a recommendation.
Now playing on Digital, To the Stars offers an incomplete and ultimately frustrating experience. If you do wind up seeing it, see it for Liana Liberato and the filmmaking promise displayed by Martha Stephens at the helm (Stephans co-directed the really strong indie dreamed Land Ho!, if you’re looking for a potentially undiscovered gem, by the by). Just remember, this one is going to shoot itself in the foot at the end. If you can get on board with that, there are far worse options to consider this weekend. However, there are better ones as well, so don’t forget that, either…
To the Stars is available on Digital April 24th!
(Photos courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films)