Emotional turmoil and bizarre encounters10/6/2021
‘The Starling’ delivers a powerful, emotional presentation of loss.
“The Starling” is a jumble of emotional turmoil and bizarre encounters. Ostensibly, the plot revolves around married couple Lilly (Melissa McCarthy) and Jack (Chris O’Dowd) in the aftermath of the death of their daughter, Katie. Jack now resides at a psychiatric facility, New Horizons, and Lilly struggles to hold down her grocery-store job and combats the titular, territorial starling, which leads her to therapist-turned-veterinarian Dr. Larry Fine (Kevin Kline).
The beginning delivers a powerful, emotional presentation of loss. The film doesn’t explicitly state what happened but nails the smaller details: the impressions of the crib’s feet in the carpet, the encompassing silence, the loneliness. Both parties seem to avoid their emotions, just trying to get through each day. Lilly’s attempt puts her into a kind of daze, while Jack is in full escapism-mode at New Horizons. Lilly has avoided going into Katie’s nursery, keeping the door shut, in fact. When she finally does open the door and go in, she immediately empties the room and drags (nearly) all the contents out to the curb. That desire to look anywhere else but at the missing thing feels surprisingly relatable, despite being a portrayal of such a specific experience of losing a child.
The full story takes shape as both Lilly and Jack reveal details in conversations with Dr. Fine and various mental-health professionals. They each spend part of the film in the dark about the feelings and outlook of the other person. Jack has retreated, leaving Lilly to pick up the pieces by herself in their lovely house that sits on a bucolic rural dirt road. It’s only once they start admitting their own struggles to themselves and each other that they then start to see beyond their own pain and coping mechanisms. Everyone has something to learn here: Lilly, Jack, Dr. Fine and even the New Horizons staff.
The plot is fairly predictable, if peppered with unexpected and often unnecessary side trips. Lilly’s battle with the starling, for example, often feels like a deterrent to the main plot. It connects Lilly with Dr. Fine, but otherwise provides a clunky metaphor for her internal journey. 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. Either way, this device with the starling, along with a “Garden State”-wannabe soundtrack is forever threatening to undermine what McCarthy and O’Dowd are doing, which is occasionally deeply felt.
The cast is solid, and Kevin Kline is charming as ever, even in a smaller role. You root for the two leads simply by virtue of who is playing them. McCarthy’s Lilly is just barely going through the motions at her job, while O’Dowd’s Jack is drowning in his depression.
Loretta Devine shows up briefly as a fellow patient, but 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, feels problematic. The scenes at New Horizons are conspicuously underdeveloped, and this kind of racial stereotyping at the margins doesn’t help.
Director Theodore Melfi, who won many admirers for his work on “Hidden Figures” and “St. Vincent,” again tries to delicately balance the light and the dark, the soft and the hard, the humor with the sadness. But it falls woefully short, is painfully derivative and altogether misguided as the film moves from one overly metaphorical scene to the other without any patience or thoughtfulness, instead content with signposting what to emote at any one time. A story of such tragic and life-changing loss and the mental, physical and emotional strains from such an event should be handled delicately, but choosing to ram such things down our throats without any care isn’t going to make for good fiction — and it doesn’t.
Sensitivity to this subject matter may differ from viewer to viewer, but the ending falls short compared to the opening’s emotional punch. The absence of money issues for a couple who clearly aren’t swimming in it feels like another 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 people who are so bereft they don’t want to participate in their life anymore? Shouldn’t that be part of the story?
Unfortunately, the film feels thin and calibrated to be neither light nor heavy, but some uncertain place in between. That leaves a blurred image for the audience to fill in the emotional blanks. ♦