TIFF 2021 REVIEW: The Starling is Painfully Relevant But Too Melodramatic

The Starling Theodore Melfi (Director), Matt Harris (Writer), Lawrence Sher (Cinematography), Matt Friedman (Editor) Melissa McCarthy, Chris O'Dowd, Timothy Olyphant, Skyler Gisondo, Daveed Diggs, Laura Harrier, Rosalind Chao, Loretta Devine, Kevin Kline (Cast) September 12, 2021 (TIFF) Image credit: Courtesy of TIFF

The Starling follows a couple grieving a terrible loss. But while one half of the pair holds down the fort, the other falls to pieces. Can they find their way back to each other?

The Starling

Theodore Melfi (director), Matt Harris (writer), Lawrence Sher (cinematographer), Matt Friedman (editor)
Melissa McCarthy, Chris O’Dowd, Timothy Olyphant, Skyler Gisondo, Daveed Diggs, Laura Harrier, Rosalind Chao, Loretta Devine, Kevin Kline (cast)
September 12, 2021 (TIFF)

The cast of The Starling was reason enough to watch this film. Add to that the film being directed by Hidden Figures’ Theodore Melfi and I couldn’t wait to review it at TIFF 2021. But this was a disappointment for me. I was expecting a drama with a few comedic elements—what with the cast being led by comedians Melissa McCarthy and Chris O’Dowd. What I got was an overly saccharine and superficial story with a CGI bird.

At the heart of the film is the story about Lilly (Melissa McCarthy) and Jack (Chris O’Dowd), who are grieving the loss of their daughter. While Jack has taken the loss badly and is getting help, Lilly continues to work at a supermarket with her unsympathetic boss. When a counsellor suggests Lilly see Larry (Kevin Kline), a therapist, both Lilly and Jack finally find a way to heal. There’s also a subplot in The Starling where Lilly tries to mend her yard, only to be attacked by a starling who has claimed the yard as its property — hence the title. Through these interactions with the bird, Lilly begins to learn…something? There’s an attempt to parallel Lilly’s grief with the bird’s habits, but honestly I don’t know why the CGI bird was a plot device here.

Loss and grief have become synonymous with the pandemic. Millions have died, not just from the virus but also from governmental negligence. You’d think a film about losing a loved one would be moving and memorable, much like Mothering Sunday was (also showing at TIFF 2021). In his introduction, Melfi spoke about losing his mother during the production of this film. I assumed we’d get a more personal angle to the story. But The Starling went in a different direction that didn’t work for me.

I usually love film music so I can’t believe I’m saying this, but the soundtrack ruined the viewing experience for me. The songs were so intrusive and overwhelming. I wasn’t sure if they were meant to add a light-hearted tone to the film or to give a scene gravitas. Either way, all I really wanted was silence. That’s what bothered me from the very start with The Starling—it became loud when it needed to be quiet. There were far too many times when a song started shrieking into my ears and made me want to eject myself right out of my seat.

Considering the subject matter, I assumed there would be just hints of melodrama in this film. Unfortunately, melodrama is the primary genre for this film, and it just doesn’t work. The overbearing film score, the obvious symbolism of the bird, and the flashbacks were all just too much. I wish the story had taken a moment to breathe and just let the events flow instead of piling on the drama. The few moments of levity were so rare that I’m struggling to remember them.

There was a bit too much telling rather than showing in The Starling, which added to the poor execution of the film. I felt like there were a few plot points that could have been omitted, or at least, left to the viewers’ imagination.

Visually, the film is beautiful, but it has that golden filter applied that tells you that this story is a generic film about hope. This was yet another aspect of the production that reminded me that I was watching a film instead of being immersed in a story. The visuals also looked very early noughties to me, which was an odd choice.

Despite the stellar cast line-up, most of the actors had little to do. Timothy Olyphant, Daveed Diggs, Laura Harrier, Rosalind Chao, and Loretta Devine are cameos, plain and simple. This criminal waste of such talent seriously irked me, especially since the majority of these cameos were people of colour. It’s 2021, and we’re still seeing films where BIPOC characters are treated as set dressing.

As for the main three characters, The Starling is carried by McCarthy’s performance. As expected, McCarthy portrays Lilly’s cynicism and strength expertly. You can see how Lilly is barely keeping it together while forcing herself to go about her daily routine. It’s a great performance in a film that doesn’t do McCarthy justice. O’Dowd, on the other hand, has less to do but manages to own his scenes near the end of the film. I wish he’d been given something more to work with earlier on because those final scenes were really touching. Kevin Kline is well, Kevin Kline.  I didn’t see the range expected of a veteran like Kline. I got serious Life As A House vibes from him but with less screen time.

Ultimately, people might take away something from The Starling‘s exploration of grief and losing a loved one, but I didn’t. It was melodramatic and cliché in ways it didn’t need to be. The film wasted powerful performers in tiny roles. The music was painfully jarring. Keep your expectations low for this one.

Louis Skye

Louis Skye

A writer at heart with a fondness for well-told stories, Louis Skye is always looking for a way to escape the planet, whether through comic books, films, television, books, or video games. E always has an eye out for the subversive and champions diversity in media. Louis' podcast, Stereo Geeks, is available on all major platforms. Pronouns: E/ Er/ Eir

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