‘To the Stars’: Small Town Prejudices in 1960s America Spiral in Emotional Coming-of-Age Drama

The tale of two very different teen girls who forge a bond in small-town Oklahoma is told in “To the Stars,” a moving coming-of-age drama that was a favorite at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Set in the early ’60s, on the eve of the counterculture movement that was to forever change the country, the story focuses on Iris Deerborne (Kara Hayward), a bright but shy high school senior who is an outcast at school, mostly due to her unfortunate incontinence problem that has earned her the nickname “Stinky Drawers.” She lives with her farmer father, Hank (Shea Whigham), and mother, Francie (Jordan Spiro). The latter is an alcoholic, something that contributes to the poor girl’s stress.

Enter Maggie Richmond (Liana Liberato), a transplant from Kansas City. Confident and cosmopolitan, she immediately attracts the attention of the popular girls at school, a clique led by snobbish beauty Clarissa (Madisen Beaty). However, Maggie is immediately drawn to Iris, and no one is more surprised than Iris herself. At first, she resists Maggie’s friendly overtures, especially after she intrudes on her space when she is taking her nightly swim at a secret spot, but her walls do come down, and under Maggie’s influence she becomes more confident and interested in things she didn’t bother with before, such as enhancing her appearance through beauty treatments and socializing. She even embarks on a budding romance with Jeff Owings (Lucas Jade Zumann), her parents’ farmhand who has his own issues due to his mother’s suicide.

Even Clarissa and her pals start to become friendly with Iris. In more conventional films, this would be when the viewer becomes suspicious of the girls, but the characters are so well-written here that we even come to somewhat care for the bullies. After all, they are mostly products of their toxic environment, and their prejudices are ones that have been passed down from their parents. The popular girls have their own identity issues, especially Hattie (promising rising actress Sophi Bairley). Hattie, who constantly gets heat for being overweight, often finds herself at odds with controlling queen bee Clarissa, and it is amusing to watch her constantly attempt to assert herself. 

It is only after it becomes clear that Maggie has a major secret, something that she is trying to suppress, that the viewer starts to worry. Whatever it is, it was the cause of her family’s sudden move. Maggie turns the heads of quite a few boys, including football player Craig (Matt Coulson). She goes through the motions of a courtship with Craig, but the truth is Maggie is attracted to females. Tony Hale, an actor we’re used to seeing in comedic roles, gives an empathetic performance as Gerald, Maggie’s dad, who along with her mother, Grace (Malin Akerman), wants so desperately for his daughter to have what he considers a “normal” life. Sadly, he resorts to abusive behavior at times, and the whole situation is just heartbreaking to watch unfold.

Then there’s Hazel (Adelaide Clemens), the local hairdresser who moved to town sometime ago after inheriting her house from her aunt. A single woman, she concocts a story about losing her husband in the Korean War to avoid questions. Maggie and Hazel grow close, and while Maggie and Iris are certainly kindred spirits, she gets something else she so desperately needs from Hazel. There’s a spark between them from the beginning, and although they initially try not to give into their desires, the two engage in a passionate affair. Hattie, the character the audience so wanted to root for, ends up intruding on their privacy, leading to a tragic outcome. 

Despite some of the ugly situations, “To the Stars” is visually beautiful, and a rather lovely film. Hayward and Liberato are great together, and they both give truly captivating performances. Hayward has been on the rise since her auspicious debut in 2012’s “Moonrise Kingdom,” and it is about time she stepped into more leading roles. It is through her character that the viewer is left with a feeling of hopefulness, as Iris does not let ignorance break her spirit when all is said and done.

To the Stars” is available April 24 on VOD.