By Mary Sollosi
April 24, 2020 at 07:02 PM EDT
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Andrew Reed/Sundance Institute

Some teen movies are all stimuli: bright wardrobes and poppy soundtracks and chaotic house parties where the only thing more plentiful than booze is hope. And some take place in the absence of all of that, our teen adolescent heroes consumed by the emptiness surrounding them, still unable to make out anything promising on the horizon.

Martha Stephens’ poignant indie To the Stars, an Americana love-letter which debuted at Sundance last year, falls into the latter camp. Nothing could be more suffocating than the wide-open space of Wakita, Okla. in the ‘60s, where Iris (Moonrise Kingdom’s Kara Hayward), a teenage outcast with a humble background and an embarrassing anxious tendency, suffers daily humiliation at the hands of cruel mean girls and menacing football players. Her world changes, however, with the arrival of new girl Maggie (Liana Liberato), who is as outgoing and impulsive as Iris is withdrawn and cautious. Mismatched though they seem, the two girls recognize something safe and familiar in each other and become fast friends.

Maybe they connect because, vibrant though she is, Maggie is set apart too; there’s a mysterious reason her affluent family left the city for Wakita, and while she alludes to her own demons, she holds her secret tight. Stephens, working from a screenplay by Shannon Bradley-Colleary, employs admirable restraint in revealing the truth of Maggie’s history, and takes her time, too, to peel back the layers on Iris’ pain and the complex dynamics of her family life.

That understated approach is echoed visually in Andrew Reed’s spare, perceptive cinematography, which captures Wakita and its inhabitants in a washed-out palette as if all the brightness had been drained out of the place (in fact, some has been added; it was originally in black and white). Especially in a film about teenagers, whose avalanche of feelings can never be painted in colors vivid enough, the slow tempo and faded worldview feels especially oppressive — though Heather McIntosh’s twinkly score offers a welcome glimmer of hope.

Hayward brings a wonderful, aching intensity to Iris, who visibly and authentically transforms upon this first attempt, by anybody, to understand her. Liberato’s Maggie balances her well, sparkling amid the blankness of their surroundings with a worldly recklessness as appealing to watch as it is for Iris to experience. The well-cast quartet of their parents — Jordana Spiro and Shea Whigham as Iris’ manipulative mother and gruff father, and Malin Åkerman and Tony Hale as Maggie’s nervous mother and strict father — round out the girls’ lives and provide careful insight into their pain.

Indeed, it never seems like anybody is happy, exactly, in Wakita — not even the rich girls trading underhanded little digs at the lunch table or their rich mothers getting their hair permed at the local salon. In giving all of the characters space (there’s so much space around here, after all), Stephens illustrates how they’re all variously victims of the horrors of high school and the dangers of womanhood and the pressures of small-minded small-town life.

It’s sort of heartbreaking, but awfully human. To the Stars seems downcast, at first glance, but it serves as a gentle, lovely reminder that one true friendship, even forged amid adversity, can be enough to keep you looking skyward. B+

To the Stars is available on digital now.

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