TO THE STARS: A Meditation On Living In A Mean Land

Oklahoma is made up of largely flat prairie land accentuated by occasional rolling hills. Its sightline is expansive to the point of seeing miles in any direction. In the midst of westward expansion, it would have been considered frontier and many cinematic westerns have found their setting within the confines of Oklahoma’s stark absence of natural views outside of brilliant sunrises, sunsets, and thunderstorms. Its beauty is found in exactly those wind-swept plains.

There’s Blood In Dem Hills

However, there’s much blood that has been spilled on these plains, and, because of its flatness, the blood soaks in instead of becoming run-off for the Arkansas or Red Rivers—mingling with the violence of other states downriver. If one takes the totality of Oklahoma’s history, it notates a particular meanness that saturates its land and residents. Many of the great Native American tribes were forcefully moved west of the Mississippi River into Oklahoma at the behest of Andrew Jackson’s policies in the early 1800s. The Native peoples of Oklahoma are constantly fighting to maintain their culture and way of life even to this day. Many native languages are nearing the precipice of extinction with the deaths of their older generations.

TO THE STARS: A Meditation On Living In A Mean Land
source: Samuel Goldwyn Films

Tulsa, where I currently reside, is just recently coming to terms with a singular event in 1921 where the white residents of the city massacred North Tulsa (Greenwood District) where African Americans had developed a flourishing culture, society, and economy in the midst of Jim Crow which they dubbed “Black Wall Street.” Oklahoma, itself, had been on the trajectory to become a black state. Yet as is often the case in American history, white Europeans would find a way to negate these moments of hope and in the early days of Summer, 1921, much of the Greenwood District was burned down and around 300 African Americans—a conservative estimate—were murdered and buried in mass graves with no names and remaining families left in the dark about the fates of their loved ones. These actions included firebombs being dropped by the National Guard, making a regional travesty a mark on the wider country.

Even in the present day, Oklahoma leads the nation in both male and female incarceration and is second-to-last in education. A majority of the state is what they call a food desert where nutrition is scarce, but convenience and junk food is consumed with abandon. There is a lot of shed blood flowing through the arteries of this state. This land is not a kind place to any who are considered outcasts, different, or other. It’s barely good to the rest of us.

An Allegorical Western

Perhaps this is why Martha Stephens‘ new film, To The Stars, fits so perfectly within the spaces of 1960s Oklahoma. Knowing the legacy of the state, it turns what could have been a fairly run-of-the-mill coming of age story into a broader indictment of a state’s transcendent violence. One might say that To The Stars is an example of a modern-day Western: white men driving out those they deem as “savages.” In the case of this film, the “savages” are lesbians. Sure, there are no gunfights in the traditional sense or the circling of the wagons under attack, but there is violence involved once the sexual lives of women—including one of our protagonists—are discovered and the community’s response to this discovery could be considered an allegorical circling of the wagons against the perceived threat.

TO THE STARS: A Meditation On Living In A Mean Land
source: Samuel Goldwyn Films

To The Stars tells the story of Iris Deerborne (Kara Hayward) who is a loner and outcast at her school, constantly harassed by boys as she walks back and forth from home to school and looked down upon by other girls at her school. She is known at the school for wetting herself and is accordingly called names due to this. However, one such encounter is broken up by a new girl in town, Maggie Richmond (Liana Liberato), and eventually, these two girls form an intimate friendship that unlocks the undiscovered and underutilized strengths in both girls.

The strongest element of Stephens‘ direction and Shannon Bradley-Colleary‘s script is letting the LGBTQ subtext right under the surface—allowing its presence to be felt, but not necessarily known—of what is first and foremost a film about female friendship in a world of arbitrary social constructions around masculinity, femininity, sexuality, popularity, etc. Something that is still inherent in modern Oklahoman society to this day (not to mention elsewhere in this country). The clothing has changed, but little else.

TO THE STARS: A Meditation On Living In A Mean Land
source: Samuel Goldwyn Films

Another wonderful element of the film was its ability to give its minor characters—specifically the parents of our two protagonists and the town’s hairstylist, Hazel—just enough character development to avoid the tropes of the typical coming of age tale. There’s a longing and loneliness in the parents that bubbles up underneath the social roles to which they have inevitably been chained. It is also nice to see some nuance and depth in the arcs of the story’s lone religious character, Gerald Richmond (played by the terrific Tony Hale). While not a “good” person within his place in the film’s narrative, there is a remorse that overcomes him by the end that gives a surprisingly rich and full understanding of navigating religious faith within man-made social constructs.

Echoes From The Past

While the film’s final moments of ambiguity may not work for everyone, the story remains so adept at building its setting—the flat, dust strewn land captured effectively by Andrew Reed‘s cinematography—and its characters that allowing its ending to color the remainder of the film would be a shame. However, I found the ending to be superb in its mythological continuity within the scope of the film when we are left to wonder if one of our protagonists goes the way of another woman in the town’s past.

These myths exist in every place in the world. The violent histories have a way of screaming out from the dirt, the rivers, the mountains, and the lakes which have been saturated with blood. Something that we, Americans, are very poor at doing is recognizing how the past affects our present and, if not confronted, will continue to affect our futures. To The Stars ends on a poetic note that recognizes this tough truth, but also gives its audience some semblance of hope that these things, too, can be made right in time.

What did you think of To The Stars? Did you find the ending satisfying or not? Let us know in the comments!

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