To the Stars takes place in that period of history when everyone knew what so-called “close female friendships” really were, no one particularly wanted to say what exactly they were out loud and a lot of societal grief was received as punishment for those who acknowledged the reality. Things are much better now in this regard, as an evolving society became more accepting, but this story takes place in the 1960s, in Oklahoma, and among a conservative community who would rather repress the “uglier” side of utopian paradise. To that end, Shannon Bradley-Colleary’s screenplay already has enough conflict to call its own, and then the movie has to go and add even more of it. The result comes across as an attempt to introduce its characters to suffering at every turn.

In this case, the story follows the blossoming friendship between Iris Deerborne (Kara Hayward), who is quiet and reserved, and Maggie Richmond (Liana Liberato), who is comparatively gregarious and outgoing. Iris is withdrawn and, to insecure boys with too much libido and too little respect for women, an easy target for mockery and sexual harassment. One day, Maggie saves her from a group of such boys, and they bond over the lies, either of commission or omission, that they have told others. Maggie claims that her father (Tony Hale) is a photojournalist for a prestigious magazine, when he actually submits to a much less notable one for a pittance. Iris fails to mention that her terminal attitude comes from an emotionless and distant father (Shea Wigham) who has no sense of humor.

We can tell immediately that there might be something deeper between these two—or, at least, that Maggie might feel more for her new friend than she lets on—but that isn’t ultimately where the story goes. This is despite the fact that it proceeds as one for the next hour, practically following the will-they-won’t-they ritual of any romantic drama, right up to the moment of a falling-out that comes with a gutting insult. At this point, Bradley-Colleary and director Martha Stephens shift thematic, tonal and subjective gears entirely as gossip flies through town, a minor scandal develops and a major character disappears from view. This decision is tied to a subplot involving the town hairdresser (Adelaide Clemens) that was not developed enough to build the kind of impact the filmmakers wanted.

Better are the sequences devoted to Iris and Maggie’s deep companionship, as well as just about any moment between each girl and her mother, as the emotion of the story lies in the suffocating pressure upon women by society in this period of time. For Iris’ mother, Francie (Jordana Spiro), the issue is one of a cold and sexless marriage to a man who seems irritated by the existence of those around him, and for Maggie’s mother, Grace (Malin Akerman), the issue is the pain that comes with the real reason why they moved from the big city to a small town to begin with. For Iris and Maggie, repression is a punishment seen by those in authority as fair in answer for their perceived sin of merely becoming friends close enough to each other that they can swim, without clothing, in the pond behind Iris’ family plot.

Liberato is good as a spirit who wants to be free but finds herself gridlocked by societal expectations (after a chaste kiss with the “wrong” person, Maggie overcompensates by following that up with a sexual encounter that she doesn’t enjoy at all), and Hayward is a tick better than that as someone who only wants to travel outside her comfort zone by choice (a running plot point involves Iris’ bed-wetting troubles, which, of course, slow when she becomes more comfortable in Maggie’s presence). One wishes as much attention was paid to the nuances in the storytelling as in these character moments, but in To the Stars, Bradley-Colleary and Stephens are too devoted to offering easy melodramatic situations to prioritize the characters.

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