It’s the early 1960s in rural Oklahoma, where the wind really does sweep down the plain, just like the song says. There, the teenage Iris (Kara Hayward), a bookish introvert, is trying to keep her head down. The only child of a rancher and a bored, restless housewife (Shea Whigham and Jordana Spiro), Iris is a loner, though it’s unclear if that’s by choice or inclination. Some nights, she runs off to a swimming hole, where she floats under a canopy of stars. She’s primed for some kind of change, which arrives with Maggie (Liana Liberato), a spirited newcomer with a murky past.
A drifty, overly sleepy coming-of-age story, “To the Stars” (which starts streaming Friday) tracks the inevitable friendship that arises the moment that Maggie appears onscreen to defend Iris from some bullies. It takes Iris a while to warm to Maggie, partly because Iris’s mother has done a number on her self-esteem. She isn’t used to kindness from other people, especially those her own age. But Maggie is one of those somewhat sainted free spirits who light up everyday dreariness (at least in the movies), stirring things up while inspiring clucks of disapproval and censure.
Like almost everything else in this movie, Maggie is at once likable and exceedingly familiar. Part of the character’s appeal comes from the alluring tug of the rebel, the figure who promises freedom and who will blaze intensely before flaming out or burning her world to the ground. Whatever happens, you know that something has to give; it always does. And it’s this expectation of trouble ahead that gives the story its light pulse, enlivening both the proceedings and Iris as she follows her genre destiny: With Maggie’s help, Iris blooms and experiences joy, discovers a fragile sense of self-worth and then suffers the inevitable heartache and disappointment.
The director Martha Stephens, working from a script by Shannon Bradley-Colleary, handles this material smoothly, creating a solid, tangible sense of place with landscapes, gusts of wind and a blue sky that feels more confining than sheltering. Stephens, whose movies include “Land Ho!” (directed with Aaron Katz), is particularly sensitive to Iris’s surroundings, her family’s weather-beaten house and barn, and the dusty road where Maggie rescues her. In one scene, Maggie and Iris take off down that road in a car, enjoying a much-needed if frustratingly brief escape. Then it’s back to their mean little town with its small-minded dictators and frustrated, hothouse desires.
It’s always nice to see characters break free, but you need to care whether they do. One insurmountable problem with this story is that Iris just isn’t interesting enough and certainly not developed enough either as a character or in terms of the performance. She isn’t simply closed off, like a turtle in lockdown; she’s devoid of spark, personality, and it leaves you searching for someone to care about. Maggie fits that role for a while. But the movie’s great missed opportunity can be found at a beauty parlor, where another loner, Hazel (a very good Adelaide Clemens), styles hair and opens up another world with a few words, darting looks and gentle, seductive grace.
To the Stars