Little rockets: "To the Stars"

Drama, not rated, 109 minutes, available Friday, April 24, on FandagoNOW, 3 chiles

It’s 1961, and Maggie Richmond (Liana Liberato) is the inscrutable, beautiful new girl at Wakita High School in rural Oklahoma. Iris Deerborne (Kara Hayward) is an outcast who walks with her head down. Maggie is drawn to Iris as an underdog with potential, and Iris is swept along by Maggie’s irresistible energy. At first, To the Stars is a Pygmalion story: Iris gets a makeover and some self-confidence, complements of her new friend.

To the Stars was shot on location in Oklahoma, with cinematography by Andrew Reed that captures a dreary, windswept middle of America with a convincing vintage sheen. The costumes, hair, and makeup evoke a bygone era when women dressed impeccably for a trip to the grocery store and teenage girls wore petticoats to school. The story pays attention to the reality of such mundane yet gendered pressures — how girls are meant to act like little women, professing to care deeply about what one another’s fathers do for a living as they yoke their aspirations to the socially acceptable boys in their orbit. Their parents’ marriages are not depicted as fulfilling or stultifying but simply as a shared status quo. Some mothers drink too much. Others pray. All of them, as well as their daughters, engage in gossip at the local beauty salon. As a viewer, you know that Iris and Maggie are meant for more than this, but that’s not the point the story is trying to make.

The acting chops of its lead actresses and ensemble elevate To the Stars from a potentially formulaic to a moody yet entertaining period drama. In Maggie, Liberato perfectly captures the kind of dangerously sophisticated friend who uses rebellion as a weapon. She’s a little too bold with girls, a little too fast with boys, and she lies easily. As Iris, Hayward is at first alarmingly socially awkward at first. As she blossoms, it’s a pleasure to watch her discover that being smart — rather than agreeable — won’t be a liability forever. Iris’ mother ( Jordana Spiro) specializes in passing her misery on to others, while Maggie’s mother (Malin Akerman) wears a perpetual, insistent smile.

To the Stars is a period drama about women and girls that is true to the era it depicts. While there are gently revolutionary moments in the movie, it shows the repercussions of being a free-thinker in the pre-feminist era and does not play like an anachronistic empowerment fantasy. Its lasting message is about reverberating effects of teenage friendships, even those that are short-lived.

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