Whenever a filmmaker decides to set their film in black and white, the question has to be asked: Why? The answer may say a lot about how well the overall film works, independent of any cinematography considerations, and it should be mentioned that according to director Martha Stephens, there’s a color version of To the Stars out there somewhere, just waiting to either be enjoyed, scrutinized, or both.
To use a recent example, Alfonso Cuarón used the black and white style of Roma to convey the intimate detail of a memory. Aziz Ansari’s Master of None opened its second season with “The Thief,” an episode set entirely in black and white so as to capture Dev’s experience of feeling like he had wandered the world to find himself in a movie. And the ultimate expressions of the form come from the silent film era, which relied on primal shadows and light to carve out a new poetic language of visual storytelling that would go on to define the entire medium.
So when To the Stars opens with Iris (Kara Hayward) floating in a midnight pond to the deep black and grays silhouetted by an orchestra of beaded stars along the water, it’s hard not to wonder if the rest of the film, which is set in 1960s Oklahoma, will live up to such a striking, memorable image. For the most part, it does, even though cinematography ends up becoming almost an afterthought once the real story of To the Stars kicks in.
The film follows Iris as she befriends the new kid at school Maggie (Liana Liberato). Iris is used to being an “untouchable,” often mocked by her classmates. Maggie seems to be the first person to take notice of what might lie behind Iris’s timid walls, and after a while, Iris returns the favor. But To the Stars doesn’t settle on the typical coming-of-age confines of a high school.
We spend a lot of time around Wakita, Oklahoma getting to know many of the adults, which include a who’s-who of well-known actors picked for roles with little for them to do. Malin Åkerman feels noticeably underutilized here as Maggie’s mother, and Tony Hale (who plays her father) tries, but ultimately fails to break out of the baggage of his comedic legacy. It’s for the best that he’s only in a small portion of the film.
It’s always possible to absolutely love a movie you can find a bit airless or tweed at times. To the Stars makes more than a few obvious points while also missing the mark on a few it should have more thoroughly addressed, the mentioning of which would be a spoiler, but I have little doubt many audiences will stay a step or two ahead of where it’s all going.
But as comfort food with some meat on the bone, To the Stars won me over with its gentle storytelling and sharp characters. Iris and Maggie aren’t the most believable archetypes wandering middle America in a dream, but they’re wonderfully realized all the same. Their dynamic evolves naturally without falling into the usual traps of overdramatic plot turns and “liar/reveal” tropes (Shannon Bradley-Colleary’s tight screenplay deserves mention, especially).
If not for a few tonal shifts toward the end that halt the progress of these characters, To the Stars could already be one of the best films of the year. For now, it’s certainly one of my favorites. And considering the wardrobes, it’s almost literal to suggest that the film wears its heart on its sleeve, which is to say its main attraction is in its own hopeless sincerity.