Here’s the thing to note. There’s never really a ‘right way’ of grieving. In the past year itself, I’ve watched movies like Pagglait, Pieces Of A Woman, Ramprasad Ki Tehrvi and more that have tackled grief on the passing of a loved one in a such a poignant manner, offering up nuanced portrayals of how differently we humans grieve. So when I realised that The Starling by Theodore Melfi treaded a similar path, I had high expectations. Melfi is the director of the Academy Award nominated Hidden Figures. In The Starling too, he directs quite an ensemble cast including Melissa McCarthy, Chris O’Dowd, Kevin Kline, Timothy Olyphant, Skyler Gisondo, Daveed Diggs, Laura Harrier, Rosalind Chao, and Loretta Devine. However, despite a promising premise and the actors to pull it off, The Starling feels like it flies too close to the ground and never really ends up soaring.
Melissa McCarthy as Lilly and Chris O’Dowd as Jack, are a married couple much in love and in the middle of getting their home ready for their first child. We flash forward to a year later right away, as we discover they lost their newborn daughter to SIDS (Sudden infant death syndrome). Unable to handle the grief of losing a child, Jack is now admitted to a psychiatric clinic, while Lilly continues to hold down the fort, going to her job, looking after their home, and religiously driving down two hours to visit Jack once a week at the clinic for family therapy sessions.
It’s clear that Lilly hasn’t dealt with her our grief as she tends to Jack’s, and so a counsellor at the clinic suggests she see an old friend. Kevin Kline plays Larry Fine, a therapist turned vet, who initially tells Lilly that he doesn’t do counselling any more. However, call it an old professional habit, but Larry lends an ear to Lilly, as she keeps returning to him because a bird—a starling—has made a home in Lilly’s garden and is getting rather territorial and aggressive.
On paper, The Starling seems like it has much to harvest in terms of both story and performances. I’ve often seen instances where men take the loss of a child much too hardly than the women who actually bore those children for months in their womb. Loss of a child has been known to drive even the most in-love couples apart, because there is no proper grieving nor communication. The film was also poised to make an important point about self-care and the importance of seeking therapy for grief and the support of a partner during this time.
However, I thought the film wasted a lot of its potential by flying past reality and aiming for the very whimsical, fairytale-like part of the sky. The film, in fact, begins as if it were a musical of sorts, with a CGI starling flying across town, giving us glimpses of what the different characters in this story are up to. Erm….
Other than Lilly, because she was played by Melissa McCarthy with her natural likeable charm, The Starling just couldn’t convince me to care for its characters, particularly Jack. See, you already don’t like the guy because he’s the one in a clinic while his wife is left alone to deal with the loss of child she carried. But you want to get over that initial dislike because everyone processes grief differently, and Jack has a reason to feel particularly guilty. But instead of working on healing himself so he can be there for Lilly, he treats her like crap, with no regard for what she must be going through to be there for him. But the final straw is when, despite all of this, Lilly just takes him back, after one conversation which didn’t even seem all that much heart-to-heart. That’s not exactly the self-care I wanted for her!
The second thing that bothered me was the bird metaphor which, NGL, might seem layered to some but to me was very confusing. I kept churning in my head what different underlying meanings the starling’s manoeuvres could mean. Should we laugh when Lilly almost kills the poor bird? Or get frustrated because realistically, it would be quite frustrating if a bird legit encroached on your property and physically injured you every time you stepped out to get a tomato from your garden!
But for the most part, the literal starling just felt like a nuisance that gave Lilly a reason to visit Dr. Larry Fine. Kevin Kline and Melissa McCarthy had some fun, easy-flowing chemistry, but even that couldn’t save this situation for me because when life is already riddled with riddles and complex emotions, you at least don’t want metaphorical BS from your therapist. I think Lilly needed a friend or someone to talk openly to, and focus on herself before she could help Jack. But this whole seeking therapy under the pretext of bird trouble was too much of an indirect addressing of her issues for me that lacked any real depth and development for the character.
And finally, there was the mental health clinic where Jack is, which gave Lilly this advice to see Larry in the first place, instead of suggesting her a proper therapist who didn’t sprout bumper-sticker wisdom. If you see Jack’s too-cool-for-school conversations with his doctor, you’ll realise that he was in no better situation than Lilly in terms of the kind of help he was getting. The other patients in the clinic felt caricaturish, with very superficial depictions of mental health. So when Jack finally has some kind of an epiphany to change his behaviour, it doesn’t feel organic at all.
The rest of the cast are all familiar faces, like Timothy Olyphant, Loretta Devine and Daveed Diggs, but have very little to do. The saving grace of the film, for me, was its very soothing, almost Gilmore Girls like setting, and the original score, which includes a lot of piano compositions I think, which is by Benjamin Wallfisch, along with songs by The Lumineers, Judah & the Lion, Brandi Carlile and more, which make for a pleasant viewing until you start getting bothered by the above issues I listed.
The Starling, to me, felt like a very superficial understanding of grief, mental health, and self-love. It’s also ironic then, that it relies so heavily on the titular starling metaphor instead really going for the raw emotion that its cast is very capable of portraying and elevating with their performance. It’s all too easy, too sanitary, and too unreal, and even Melissa McCarthy’s performance cannot help it lift off the ground. She, and this exploration of grief, both deserved more.
The Starling is currently streaming on Netflix.
This review is part of our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival 2021. Read more TIFF21 reviews here.