2018 was an unexpectedly fine year for B&W features, “Roma,” “Cold War” and the underseen “1985” being obvious examples. But hopes that the trend might continue into the new year aren’t encouraged by “To the Stars,” a liftoff-resistant period drama that starts like a slightly cartoonish teenage version of lesbian date-night favorite “Desert Hearts,” then gradually plods toward an excess of retro-potboiler melodrama.
Blogger/journalist Shannon-Bradley Colleary’s first produced screenplay hits so many obvious marks so heavily that you can imagine this tale originating from a vintage drugstore paperback with the sell-line “Prejudice and Passions Explode in a Town Without Pity!” It all might have worked nonetheless if handled as a sort of semi-tongue-in-cheek empowerment fairy tale, and there are moments when director Martha Stephens (who previously co-helmed “Land Ho!” with Aaron Katz) seems to be aiming thataway. But only moments. Too often, “To the Stars” is earnest in that annoying fashion of movies that at once caricature the past and ignore its norms to accommodate up-to-the-moment social attitudes.
Somewhere around 1960 (the local movie house is showing “The Magnificent Seven”), life could hardly be worse for small-town Oklahoma misfit Iris Deerborne (Kara Hayward). Stuck at a remote farmhouse, she’s unhelpfully nagged and fussed over by a mother (Jordan Spiro) who might once have been played by Gloria Grahame — being written as the “drunken tramp of a wife” type. Small wonder dad (Shea Whigham) spends most of his time with his cows. Iris has no friends, being called “Stinky Drawers” due to a bladder problem by the mean girls and even meaner boys at school.
Some of them are harassing her from a pickup truck on her long daily walk to school when they’re chased away by a bold stranger driving a nice “city” car. Turns out Maggie Richmond (Liana Liberto) is the new girl in town, very much unimpressed by said town and its other girls. She nonetheless takes a surprising shine to Iris, despite overtures from the local debs (led by Madison Beaty’s Clarissa) once they’ve sussed her father is a photographer for Life magazine.
That’s not exactly true — but Maggie enjoys hoodwinking these subadult snobs even as she half-heartedly accepts their society at her parents’ (Malin Akerman, Tony Hale) urging. It seems the reason they’ve moved here is precisely so their oldest daughter can get a “fresh start,” having scandalized them in some murky but easy-to-guess fashion previously.
Spouting a rebellious feminist attitude and ideas a decade or so before they’d be credible, Maggie practically forces her liberating influence on initially skittish Iris, whose self-esteem is so low she can’t recognize that dad’s conveniently dreamy farmhand (Lucas Jade Zumann) really likes her, too. Maggie has her own hidden sea of self-loathing, which washes against the isle of Lesbos — a familiar destination also for hairdresser Hazel (Adelaide Clemens), an alleged “war widow” whose prairie exile is in fact due to love lost of a different stripe entirely.
Eventually no cliché is left unmined, from the transformative wallflower makeover to a climax wrought by vicious gossips and Sapphic passion that practically brings on the torch-wielding vigilante villagers à la “Frankenstein.”
“To the Stars” begins and ends with attractive lyrical bits in which our protagonists enjoy a rare moment of freedom floating in a pond under the twinkling night sky. Heather McIntosh’s score, too, reaches for a spectral, slightly whimsical air, while Andrew Reed’s photography proves again that shooting in black-and-white nearly always adds more than it takes away. But these are the only elements that successfully touch the lightly ironical, hyperreal tenor this movie desperately needs to soften the ham-fistedness of its empowerment messaging and unconvincing period atmosphere.
Actually, the design contributors do fine by the era on likely slim means (made most obvious by a onscreen population sparse even for rural Oklahoma). But the sensibility that Stephens and Colleary imbue it with is modern in an on-the-nose, finger-waggling way that feels condescendingly trite and artificial.
The performances are variable, with probably the best-known players here (Akerman and Whigham) given very little to work with. Yet even those with plentiful screentime are hobbled by character conceptions and writing that feel thoroughly contrived. The bedrock authenticity that made relevant movies as disparate as “The Last Picture Show,” “Brokeback Mountain,” and “Carol” work is nowhere to be found here.
“To the Stars” needn’t have taken itself so seriously, but the fact that it ultimately does is exactly what turns it from a potentially charming, bittersweet fable to a pretentiously overblown yet undercooked Amerindie soap opera.