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The Starling Review: A Misguided, Metaphor-Heavy Tale About Grief

Unproduced screenplays are a common occurrence in Hollywood. In fact, there is an entire body dedicated to individuals who will never see the light of day, until someone, somewhere decides to take a shot at it. This industry body, known as the Black List, has been responsible for numerous amazing films, many of which have received top prizes. Whiplash and Manchester by the Sea are two films that would have been destroyed if the Black List had not decided to produce them.

The Black List, on the other hand, is responsible for some of the more laborious and ill-conceived ideas that sound wonderful on paper but end up in utter ruins when subjected to the sugary doses commonly associated with mainstream films. The Starling unquestionably falls into the second category. On paper, it appears to be a fantastic film. It even stakes its claim on getting the casting right. Everything else, on the other hand, just feeds a weird, misdirected, and sour collection of delights.

The Starling opens with our introduction to Lilly Maynard, a melodramatic soap opera that hides its true feelings under repetitive visual gags; typically featuring a CGI-bird for good measure (Melissa McCarthy). She is a middle-aged woman who works as a grocery store cashier. After what feels like a prologue, we are given insight into her existence, which plainly lacks something. We soon learn that she isn’t doing well because she lost her daughter. Her spouse, Jack (Chris O’Dowd), on the other hand, is a far worse character. So much so that he had to be checked into a psychiatric facility after attempting to commit suicide.

During the initial setup, Lily is doing her best to keep everything together. Despite a grumpy employer (played by Timothy Olyphant), she does her job well and drives all the way back and forth to the facility to meet her husband every Tuesday. Her eccentric country house boasts a lovely front porch and a now-deserted garden.

Failing to manage her relationship with her husband, who is progressively deteriorating into despair, Lily chooses to get rid of her daughter’s belongings in order to move on from the grief that is only a few inches away. This causes a schism between Jack and Lily, and in order to soothe herself, she chooses to seek treatment on her own, following the suggestion of her husband’s counselor. Essentially, her inability to really grieve her loss is holding her back, but because she wants to do so on her own terms, she agrees to see the advised therapist named Larry (Kevin Kline). To her astonishment, he is now a vet who has decided to take her under her wing.

In addition, she resolves to redesign her garden and cultivate something that will keep her calm. However, a tenacious tiny bird isn’t going to let her. Whenever she tries to move forward and create a new beginning, the attacks of this bird pull her down, quite literally (is that a metaphor, geddit?). Will Lilly be able to put her life back together? Will she be able to start over and rekindle her marriage with her husband? These are the kinds of things that The Starling investigates.

The Starling, directed by Theodore Melfi (of Hidden Figures fame), is a very bad and exploitative picture. While the aforementioned setting would undoubtedly delve into some of the more wise rebuttals that life throws your way when tragedy strikes, Melfi uses sorrow as a process of self-growth for its characters rather than an exploration of the grieving process.

While there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with that, the film feels entirely out of place. Especially when sorrow and trauma are treated as extraneous extras or merely plot devices. The loss of a child is just hinted at in passing in a film that seeks to understand how two people cope with the loss of a child. We never see what happened to the child, forcing the spectator to see a clumsy, ill-conceived, and humiliating depiction of mourning.

There are some genuinely clever moments sprinkled throughout, but Melfi’s decision to obviously lighten the somber moments with lame humor and cheerful country tunes feels like a misstep. The Starling, being the director’s second collaboration with Melissa McCarthy (the first being the indie success “St. Vincent”), made me believe that this may be a sure-fire winner. McCarthy, on the other hand, is so uncomfortable with the material at her disposal that both her tragic and humorous moments are hampered by a screenplay that doesn’t know which way to go.

The Starling, unlike the CGI-bird that serves as a metaphor here, is unclear of its own obligations. While it has excellent intentions, one can’t help but wonder how it got to the point of beginning over. It feels strange when the picture tries to find an easy way out of the problem it has created. Making me believe that the shredder would have been a better alternative for this rejected script to begin with.

The Starling Review: A Misguided, Metaphor-Heavy Tale About Grief
The Starling Review: A Misguided, Metaphor-Heavy Tale About Grief
The Starling Review: A Misguided, Metaphor-Heavy Tale About Grief


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