To the Stars

To the Stars had a very successful film festival run last year, where it screened in black-and-white. Now it's being released to the public in a color version. (The movie was clearly shot in color and converted to black-and-white, so the color doesn't look artificial.) I can only guess the reason for this decision. No matter what the format, this tender coming-of-age drama is a gem. It will be released on digital April 24.

Set in 1960s Oklahoma, the movie stars Kara Hayward (Moonrise Kingdom) as Iris Deerborne, a very unhappy teen. She's shy and mousy. Her alcoholic mother (Jordana Spiro) and tough-as-nails father (Shea Wigham) fight constantly. The other kids at school pick on her, calling her “Stinky Drawers” because she once wet her pants. One day, the new girl in town, Maggie Richmond (Liana Liberato), stands up for her. The two subsequently become close friends. Maggie is pretty, sophisticated, and sharp-witted. She helps Iris come out of her shell.

Many familiar elements can be found in To the Stars. There's the clique of mean girls who mock Iris and court Maggie. There's the old cliché in which the “dumpy” Iris takes off her glasses and lets down her hair to reveal true beauty. And if you guessed that Maggie is, in her own way, even more troubled than her friend, pat yourself on the back. Other films have tackled her secret in a period setting, so there isn't exactly a lot of new ground being covered.

Then again, the story is handled so well by director Martha Stevens that seeing those things carried out one more time isn't as frustrating as it might have been. Stevens and writer Shannon Bradley-Colleary love their two main characters, so therefore we do, too. And because we love them, we want to see how they navigate their individual (and sometimes shared) dilemmas. One girl's story plays out exactly how we expect it to – although that's still very satisfying – but the other girl's doesn't. That's even more satisfying, since it gives To the Stars its biggest moment of poignancy.

First-class performances bring out the heart in the material. Hayward immediately earns our empathy as Iris. We've seen characters like her before, but the actress has a way of suggesting inner turmoil that transcends the “shy girl” cliches. Liberato, meanwhile, has a tough role. Maggie has to be convincingly confident to the other characters, yet also obviously vulnerable to the audience. She pulls this off magnificently. Between her work here and in the recent Banana Split, Liberato marks herself as a young actress to keep an eye on.

In the supporting realm, Spiro is raw and scary as Iris's mom, a woman who doesn't try to hide the fact that she resents her daughter for not being beautiful and popular. Tony Hale serves in a similar role, playing Maggie's angry father. To say more about his character would be to give away a major plot point, so suffice to say that he does strong work portraying a man who we're not sure whether to loathe or feel compassion for, which is precisely the point.

To the Stars presents an authentic, ultimately touching look at friendship – at how two teen girls find something in one another that they need. Iris and Maggie go through good and bad times together. The movie brings the chemistry between them alive, showing how having one really close friend during the adolescent years can change your life for the better, forever.

out of four

To the Stars is unrated, but contains adult language and some mature subject matter. The running time is 1 hour and 49 minutes.