Movie Review: Small towns and small minds, “To the Stars”

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Here’s a “Last Picture Show” era story of growing up in the rural West, the crippling burdens of small town life and that one new friend who can help you lift your downcast eyes “To the Stars.”

Sounds sensitive, maybe a little dated, with a hint of Big Subject to be addressed in it? On the nose. Which is a failing of this still-touching feature from the director of “Land Ho!”

The “first impressions can be deceiving” theme is laid out in the first scene. Shy teen Iris Deerborne (Kara Hayward of “Manchester by the Sea”) gets fussed over by her Mom (Jordana Spiro) and Mom’s friend, fretting over a prom dress they’ve been working on.

Gruff farmer Dad (Shea Whigham) cuts them off and sends her on her way to school.

Grumpy Dad, it quickly turns out, is the reasonable one, just trying to “give her a break.” Mom is a big reason Iris is scared of her own shadow.

The harassment she’s subjected to by pick-em-truck classmates walking to school confirms the crippling pigeon-hole Iris has been shoved into. The boys taunt her with “Stinky Drawers,” and are on the cusp of crossing over to assault when, behold, an avenging angel rides to her rescue.

Hurled rocks and expletives are how we, Iris and the punks meet Maggie (Liana Liberato, “The Best of Me,””If I Stay”). She’s a city girl, she explains.

“I’ve got a mouth like a gutter,” she apologizes. Iris practically sprints away from her.

If these two are going to be friends, Maggie, who lives close by, is going to have to be persistent. Showing up at the pond where Iris takes midnight swims, for instance. Iris is slow to let down her guard.

The mean girls clique at school, led by Clarissa (Madisen Beatty) are all set to take City Girl into their ranks, if only she’d learn Iris is an “Untouchable.” Clarissa is an unfiltered bitch, hitting Iris right where it hurts — her ugly nickname, her booze-crippled home life.

Iris can’t bear to look the handsome hired hand (Lucas Jade Zumann) in the eye, out of fear, fear that her lush of a mother reinforces at every turn. Iris has a secret shame. Mom picks at it, and puts down the attentions from the new girl and her new mother in town.

“She gets her clothes from DEE-orr!” She’s going to tire of Iris and toss her aside. Mom expects, NEEDS this to happen.

And Maggie may talk a big game about her “Life Magazine photographer” Dad (Tony Hale) and model-gorgeous Mom (Malin Akerman) and how “they wanted me to be a model.” But for all their efforts to say grace before dinner, to fit in, Mom’s quick agreement to join the ladies at Hazel’s (Adelaide Clemens) in-home beauty shop at church, something dark is hinted at there as well.

“I left my JOB for you,” Dad hisses at every unaccounted for minute in Maggie’s day. Maggie has a secret shame, too.

We see the two of them bludgeoned by misunderstanding parents and cruel classmates, all of them hellbent on smothering this relationship in the crib. But Iris needs an outsider’s take on her situation to start to understand it.

Maggie just needs a friend who’ll stick by her, even after they fight.

Shannon Bradley-Colleary’s screenplay feels quaint, as if it’s broaching the subject of same-sex attraction in the era it is set — 1960 Oklahoma. But the extreme reactions to this sort of unspoken “deviance” make the shock of how quickly attitudes changed, half a century after “Magnificent Seven” was showing at the local cinema, feel fresh.

Too many scenes feel over-familiar, although the cliched “beauty makeover” by the new friend is punctuated by a surprise twist.

Dated touches aside, the two leads are so immersed in their roles that they make us buy in, too. Liberato is the more experienced, and she makes the emerging “assertive woman ahead of her time” stereotype ring true, and Hayward’s depiction of Iris’s crippling shyness and resignation to her fate touching.

The supporting players build on that reality, with Spiro devouring the tipsy, narcissistic villainy of Francine and Whigham beautifully conveying the stern but kind father and husband trying to counter her cruelty, even though nothing in his upbringing or the expectations of what it means to be a man at the time have prepared him to do that.

And as well-worn as depictions of America’s rural-urban divide are, Martha Stephens’ film is a timely reminder that social change and progress comes from cities. It’s the violent resistance to that change that emerges from the “heartland.”

“To the Stars” may be a mixed bag of over-familiar obstacles and dated themes. But this period-perfect piece and a solid cast take us back to an uglier time, just as we were about to forget it.

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MPAA Rating: unrated, violence, teen drinking, profanity

Cast: Kara Hayward, Liana Liberato, Jordana Spiro, Malin Akerman, Tony Hale,  Adelaide Clemens and Shea Whigham

Credits: Directed by Martha Stephens, script by Shannon Bradley-Colleary. A Samuel Goldwyn release.

Running time: 1:49

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