To the Stars: Martha Stephens’ Directing Debut, Tale of Intimate Friendship (WIF, LGBTQ)

Samuel Goldwyn will release the drama To the Stars, which premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Fest, on Digital on April 24, 2020.

The screenwriting debut of Shannon Bradley-Colleary, To the Stars was directed by Martha Stephens (Land Ho!), and features a talented ensemble of young actors: Kara Hayward, Liana Liberato, Jordana Spiro, Shea Whigham.

The premise of this film is rather simple: Under small town scrutiny, a withdrawn farmer’s daughter forges an intimate friendship with a worldly  reckless new girl in 1960s Oklahoma.

But it’s the delicate tone, and the subtle handling of the text that make it emotionally impactful.

A complex, multi-shaded story, the movie probes into the nature of female friendship and empowerment.

To the Stars is a personal film for director Martha Stephens, as she observes: “I heard decaying leaves chatter and scrape against the dusty storefronts. Below the suffocating vastness of prairie skies, I caught the whispers of endless rows of corn. There was the rustle of fussy dress skirts flapping against whistling winds. The sanctuary of night swimming beckoned, promising boldness and mystery. A cold trickle from wet hair dripped down the base of my spine. I knew the hardscrabble farming community of WaKeeney, Kansas: it’s the type of small American town in which a shy teenager can live out her life and end up feeling anonymous.”

Deep yearning defines the central characters, albeit of a different kind.

Maggie wishes to be accepted as she is, a lesbian, or otherwise to wish away her sexuality and be the model daughter expected of her.

Iris, on the other hand, longs for another world, whether it comes through tuning into faraway radio stations while hiding under the covers, or floating alone into the eerie quiet of the night.

Even Iris’s bitter mother Francie, though deeply imperfect, elicits empathy due to the girlish, unfilled dreams that haunt her. She will never have the great romances her teenage imagination fed her, nor a life beyond the cow pastures that her dull husband tends to more than their marriage.

Says the director: “At some time, in some way, we’ve all known such feelings. Longing is part of the human condition: the ever-present awareness of what’s still missing from our lives. Metaphysical thinkers read humanity’s endless search for fulfillment as proof that we yearn for more than this world can provide. Scientists observe that the allure of seeking outweighs the pleasure of fulfillment, meaning that although we can attain some of what we seek, we’ll always find something new to yearn for. Discovering To the Stars was a remedy for some of my own pining.”

The middle of the American 20th century has forever played a part in both my daydreams and my restlessness. At four years old, I recall a night drive in my father’s car. The heat blasted as a fuzzy doo-wop cassette made the rounds and my senses were overloaded by the otherworldly pleasure of hearing The Platters croon “The Great Pretender.” Since my earliest memories, I’ve been haplessly compelled to experience a dead era via dusty 45’s, Elia Kazan films, and forgotten motor lodges. There’s hardly anything more important to my aesthetic than accurately representing the soul and physicality of this time period.

It was my aim to create an authentic yet dreamy snapshot of a heartland teenager’s coming of age in early 1960s Kansas. It is serviced by the whip-smart levity and wry human observations Shannon brings to her writing.