Melissa McCarthy and Chris O’Dowd star in a Netflix film about the grief of losing a child
Last year, based on just a script and four-minute promo reel, Netflix paid somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 million for the worldwide rights to “The Starling,” with Melissa McCarthy and Chris O’Dowd headlining as a couple pushing through the grief of losing a child.
I suspect McCarthy’s involvement was the driver behind Netflix’s interest because the movie itself, from director Theodore Melfi (“Hidden Figures”), is thin and calibrated to be neither light nor heavy, but some uncertain place in between. Suffused with low-key quirkiness, “The Starling” is tonally a fractured fairy tale set within the real world. You root for these two simply by virtue of who is playing them. McCarthy’s Lilly is just barely going through the motions at the local grocery store where she works, while O’Dowd’s Jack is at a facility called New Horizons, where he’s being treated for depression.
Their baby died a year earlier from SIDS and they are sleepwalking through the aftermath, having lost each other along the way. Trauma of this magnitude can leave you feeling so alone with the pain and “what if?” and “oh, God, why?” of it all taking over your existence. This awful thing happened, and even though you had no control over it, it feels so personal. And so Jack has retreated, leaving Lilly to pick up the pieces by herself in their lovely house that sits on a bucolic rural dirt road.
One day, she stares out at her long-neglected front yard and decides to roll up her sleeves, clear out the weeds and plant a garden. If only she weren’t attacked by a bird — the starling of the tile — every time she sets out to touch soil and plant something anew. The attacks are framed as a strange if mildly funny inconvenience, but that’s not actually how they play. This is a far more unnerving turn of events for someone at her breaking point than the movie seems willing to admit.
I’m not sure what that dive-bombing CGI starling symbolizes. Perhaps the idea is that grief is forever there to knock you around and the trick to moving on is figuring out how to coexist with it and somehow stay on your feet. Lily and Jack are a middle-aged couple, and I wish screenwriter Matt Harris had been interested in some of the details leading up to their pregnancy; having a first child at their age isn’t extraordinary, but there’s a story behind it and we never learn what that is. Either way, this device with the starling, along with a softly thrumming soundtrack from The Lumineers and others — I’m not sure there’s a way to incorporate this kind of music with this kind of story without it feeling cliched — is forever threatening to undermine what McCarthy and O’Dowd are doing, which is often deeply felt and pitched just right.
McCarthy is so good when it comes to finding the human being inside her more dramatic characters (she and O’Dowd previously worked with director Melfi on the 2014 film “St. Vincent”), and she deftly maneuvers around the script’s semi-cloying tendencies. Her instincts are to underplay all of it, and you’re reminded that she’s the kind of actor who can carry a film even when there’s barely anything there. Lilly isn’t in therapy herself, but she finds herself connecting informally and platonically with a therapist-turned-veterinarian (don’t ask) played by Kevin Kline, and their easygoing chemistry is just wonderful. I’d love to see them paired again on another project.
As for her marriage, once a week, Lilly drives one hour each way to visit Jack at New Horizons. It seems like a nice enough place. How do they afford it? Is her health insurance at the grocery store that good? The absence of money issues for a couple who clearly aren’t swimming in it feels like a dodge. But then, so do most of the scenes at New Horizons, which don’t really show the work of clawing back from such a desolate place. How do you help someone who is so bereft they don’t want to participate in their life anymore? Shouldn’t that be part of the story?
Loretta Devine shows up briefly as a fellow patient, and I’m curious about the decision to have the one Black person we see struggling with mental health portrayed as loud and unruly during group therapy scenes, in contrast to Jack’s repressed white guy stoicism. The scenes at New Horizons are conspicuously underdeveloped, and this kind of racial stereotyping at the margins doesn’t help any. Another boldface name in the film: Daveed Diggs as an employee at the facility. He has no more than a handful of lines and … why would you cast the great Daveed Diggs in a nothing of a role?
The film is getting a modest theatrical release, but that seems like an anomaly. These kinds of movies just aren’t financially viable outside of streaming anymore. If you’re tempted to add it to your queue, McCarthy’s open-faced performance is reason enough to give it your time, even if nearly everything surrounding her feels unworthy.
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