To the Stars

Movie review by
Sandie Angulo Chen, Common Sense Media
To the Stars Movie Poster Image
Poignant, feminist coming-of-age drama set in 1960 Oklahoma.
  • NR
  • 2020
  • 111 minutes

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

Positive Messages

Promotes seeing beyond the superficial in friendships and romantic relationships, accepting differences, standing up for the meek, the less fortunate, the less popular, and staying true to your personality, beliefs, identity. To modern audiences, movie is also a reminder of how short a time women's and LGBTQ rights have mattered in the United States. Themes include compassion, empathy, humility.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Maggie is bold, brave, outspoken. She makes her own decisions, stands up for those who need help. Iris is kind, loyal, accepting, intelligent. She wants to help Maggie as much as Maggie wants to help her. Jeff is thoughtful, protective. Parents love their children but don't always show it in ways that help and/or support them. Very little diversity, but the homogenous, largely intolerant community is part of movie's theme. All characters are White and Christian, except for a Black maid. Two characters are revealed to be gay.

Violence

Two scenes show young women throwing rocks at truck of young men who were harassing them. Parents fight loudly with each other over the mother's drinking. A father hits his daughter for disobedience, yelling at her that she'll be thrown out if there's more bad behavior. She has a bruise that lingers. A group of men gather around a woman's home, threaten her, damage her car, run her out of town. It's implied that a young woman has drowned (upsetting scenes as authorities scour a pond), but she's later thought to have run away. A young woman slaps a classmate on the cheek. Arguments/yelling. Story about someone who died via suicide in a local pond.

Sex

A few kissing scenes. Two nonexplicit sex scenes. In one, it's dark and outdoors, and the couple is partially clothed. In the other, viewers hear kissing noises and know two people are in bed together, but camera shows someone witnessing the act rather than the couple involved. An adult woman flirts with a teen farmhand. Friends go skinny-dipping together (once it's just two female friends; later it's a coed group, with bras/underwear). A couple goes into a pond in their underwear.

Language

Strong language includes "f--k," "motherf----rs," "cow f--kers," "bastards," "son of a bitch," "bitch," "piece of s--t," "chickens--t," "a--hole," "goddamn," and "damn." Insults include "ingrate," as well as "crazy," "smelly," "stinky," and "stinky drawers" (to a character with nervous incontinence).

Consumerism

Life magazine is mentioned many times. Ford trucks. CorningWare.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Teens drink beer at an unsupervised get-together; at least one teen gets drunk. An adult day-drinks and gets drunk. Cigarette smoking.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that To the Stars is a coming-of-age drama set in 1960 Oklahoma. It's about an introverted, small-town outcast (Kara Hayward) whose life changes when she meets a smart-mouthed, sophisticated, newly arrived "city" girl (Liana Liberato). Because of the movie's intentionally homogenous small-town setting, there's little to no diversity in the cast -- or at least it seems that way in the beginning. Expect frequent strong language, including "f--k," "f--ker," "s--t," and "bitch," as well as an upsetting scene where a father strikes his daughter, causing a bruise. There's another sequence in which an angry, intolerant mob runs someone out of town. Scenes suggest that a young woman has drowned herself, and there are stories about a girl who did die that way years before. Characters kiss; there are two brief sex scenes, but they're not explicit. Teens and adults drink and get drunk, and there's cigarette smoking. There are plenty of thought-provoking themes in the story for parents and teens to discuss, and the overall message is about the power of acceptance and friendship.

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What's the story?

TO THE STARS is set in 1960 in a small Oklahoma town where Iris (Kara Hayward) is a picked-on high school outcast because of her social awkwardness and history of nervous incontinence. Even her attractive but occasionally cruel mother, Francie (Jordana Spiro), wishes aloud that Iris would just flirt with boys, go to the prom, and not be such a prude. Iris' life changes dramatically when outspoken city girl Maggie (Liana Liberato) saves Iris from a group of obnoxious farm boys. Maggie, who hails from Kansas City, tells the school's queen bees that her father, Gerald (Tony Hale), is a photographer for Life magazine. As Iris and Maggie get closer, Iris comes out of her shell and even catches the eye of her classmate/the family farmhand, Jeff (Lucas Jade Zumann). But as Iris finally joins the school's social scene, it becomes increasingly clear that Maggie has a mysterious past she's trying to hide.

Is it any good?

This surprisingly touching and well-acted historical coming-of-age drama delves into issues of repression, intolerance, and self-identity. The rural Oklahoma setting is as homogenous and closed-minded as you'd expect for a movie set in 1960: This is a place where difference of any kind is looked on with scorn. So when Maggie breezes into Iris' school and life, she brings with her an air of sophistication, a sailor's mouth, and a sense of self-confidence that even the "cool" girls lack. Liberato does a fine job of expressing a range of emotions as Maggie, and Hayward is equally impressive as folded-in-on-herself Iris, who has finally made a friend. Hale plays against type as a stern father, and Malin Akerman is appropriately cowed as Maggie's beautiful but subservient mother, grace. And Zumann (Gilbert from Anne with an E) is once again an appealing love interest who sees beyond the superficial.

Director Martha Stephens and screenwriter Shannon Bradley-Colleary know how to capture the intensity of young women's close friendships, particularly considering the lack of agency they had in that time and place. Within the confines of their friendship, Iris and Maggie can be committed to truth and loyalty, but in their immediate surroundings, everyone expects conformity -- whether it's a spot on the cheer team, a magazine-approved hairdo, or a promise ring after going a bit too far with a boy. A couple of the plot twists steer the movie into melodramatic waters, and one particular story thread isn't resolved in a satisfying way. But Iris' character arc is one of growth and transcendence, and that's always the point of a coming-of-age story.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the violent incidents in To the Stars. How is the violence depicted, and is it realistic?

  • How is sex/sexuality portrayed in the movie? Which, if any, relationships seem healthy?

  • Which characters show compassion, empathy, and humility? Why are those important character strengths?

  • Discuss the depiction of alcohol and cigarette use. Are there consequences to the substance use?

  • What message is the movie sending about the power of friendship and accepting people for who they are? How has society changed since the time the movie takes place? What hasn't changed?

Movie details

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