The Starling

Movie review by
Jennifer Green, Common Sense Media
The Starling Movie Poster Image
Tearjerker has mature themes, salty language, some humor.
  • PG-13
  • 2021
  • 104 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

The film's positive core message involves finding meaning in life, even at its most cruel or its most routine, and holding onto your loved ones.

Positive Role Models

Two adults suffering a serious loss grapple with it in their own ways. Lilly isn't a quitter; no matter what, she perseveres, holding her job and house together as best she can during difficult emotional circumstances and in her husband's long absence. In so doing, she may not be getting in touch with her own feelings that need to be acknowledged and addressed. Jack, in turn, lives in his pain and has trouble moving past it or envisioning having a full life again. He tries to kill himself, which is fair neither to him nor to his loved ones. Larry offers wise counsel as a former therapist, but his unofficial role winds up causing pain.

Diverse Representations

There's some diversity among the patients and staff of the mental health facility and the vet's office, but these are secondary characters. A coworker at Lilly's store speaks Spanish; it's the actor's only spoken line. Jack is Irish. A character jokingly refers to another as "Kemosabe."


A baby died in her sleep, apparently due to SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). An aggressive bird dives at humans, leaving a gash mark on Lilly's forehead and causing her to fall off a tall ladder (she's sore but fine). Lilly poisons one bird and hits another with a rock, feeling guilty for her actions both times and once rushing the bird to the vet. Lilly daydreams while driving and almost crashes her car; she spins out on a lonely road. Jack tried to commit suicide, which we see as a flashback, and appears to consider it again later.


A married couple kisses. Some sexual innuendo includes a light switch cover with a man's image and a hole in his groin (where the switch goes up and down), a store worker who takes suggestive selfies, a dog that humps a woman's foot -- its owner says she's getting him neutered (getting his "marbles knocked off," as she puts it), and a woman on TV who talks about being promiscuous.


"F--k," "s--t/s---ty," "hell," "a--hole," "bitch," "damn," "crap," "poop," "God," "Jeez/Jesus."


Hostess Snoballs play a prominent role in the story. Other brands include Lexus, Subaru, Michelin, Luna, Lay Z Boy, Johns Hopkins, products in the background at a grocery store.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Jack holds a glass of wine in a flashback. He has to take medication, which he's stashing. Larry jokes about psychiatrists saying "time's up and take this pill." Lilly jokes about vaping, meth.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Starling has some very sad themes and situations involving a couple, played by Melissa McCarthy and Chris O'Dowd, grieving the sudden death of their infant baby girl. The grieving process is depicted as long and difficult, with emotions ranging from depression to anger and blaming. The characters are seeking help, and in one case medical treatment, for their grief, but seem to be stuck. One of the characters has attempted suicide and appears to be contemplating it again. Another has an ongoing battle with an aggressive bird, mostly played for humor but which does cause some minimal physical harm, like a gash in the forehead and a fall off a tall ladder. Birds are maimed or killed. In another scene, a car crash is barely averted. Sexual innuendo includes a piece of art with a suggestive element around the area of a man's groin. Language includes "f--k," "s--t/s---ty," "hell," "a--hole," "bitch," "damn," "crap," "poop," "God," and "Jeez/Jesus."

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What's the story?

Lilly (Melissa McCarthy) and Jack (Chris O'Dowd) are grieving the death of their baby a year ago at the start of THE STARLING. While Jack is receiving care and therapy in a live-in clinic, Lilly tries to carry on with life, fumbling through her day job in a big box store and maintaining their sprawling farmhouse and garden. Convinced Lilly could use someone to talk to as well, Jack's therapist recommends a former colleague who is now a veterinarian, Larry Fine (Kevin Kline). When Lilly is attacked by an aggressive bird on her property, Larry's vet skills also come in handy, but ultimately Lilly and Jack will each have to figure out on their own how to move on and continue their lives together.

Is it any good?

This calculated tearjerker is heavy on emotional symbolism but offers a showcase for its two impressive lead actors, Melissa McCarthy and Chris O'Dowd. In fact, The Starling is totally dependent on McCarthy's believability as a big box store clerk stoically marching on after tragedy, and on her and O'Dowd's ability to carry both the drama and the humor. McCarthy's deadpan delivery and knack for physical comedy are well-known, but here she's also called on to convey deep emotional trauma, anger, frustration, uncertainty, and more, often in close-up shots while driving or sitting alone at home. Perhaps best known as the perennial good guy in Bridesmaids, O'Dowd matches her: his slouchy demeanor, cheeky face, and Irish brogue are the outward signs of his droll, despairing character. He has one of the most heartrending scenes in the film, with no spoken lines, when he faces a vital choice alone in his room. Kevin Kline exudes his usual paternal pathos, though it comes as almost a relief when his Dr. Fine admits he doesn't have all the answers either.

The film works hard not to wallow in melancholy, conspicuously weaving the heaviest scenes together back-to-back with lighter ones. Jack's therapy sessions, for example, are often followed by scenes of Lilly gardening in a helmet or arguing crazily with a bird. An apparently very serious fall off a ladder is oddly played for humor. Lilly seems to do a lot of driving in this rural setting, perhaps symbolizing the journey she's on -- and with no clear destination at first. Likewise, the symbolism is ripe as she preps a field to replant an abandoned garden. These are just some of the overly obvious choices the film makes to set the mood and explain its characters, ultimately unnecessary considering the intensity of the event at its heart. The lack of subtlety in the animal analogies is even discussed by the characters ("Real subtle, Larry," Lilly jokes). But tellingly, the birds are actually superfluous to this story of two people trying to start their lives again after unthinkable heartbreak.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about whether they felt empathy for both Jack and Lilly in The Starling or not, and why.

  • Larry mentions the stages of grief. Have you heard of these? Where could you go for more information?

  • How does Lilly demonstrate perseverance? How does this both help and hinder her grieving process? Why is this an important character strength?

  • How did the music in this film complement the story and the characters' journeys?

  • How does the movie combine humor and drama? What genre would you call this movie, and why?

Movie details

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