The Starling Movie Review: Excellent acting in an inconsistent Film
The acting scores full marks in a story that has too many loopholes to ignore
The unfortunate death of a child, the affected partners at different stages of the grieving process, a determined little bird hell-bent on protecting its turf. These three central themes come together to form the larger picture that is The Starling. A slow, moving, character-driven portrait of grief and mental illness, the film scores points on multiple counts. It is deliberate in its pacing, with each frame gradually building up to a moment of subtle reckoning. Lilly (Melissa McCarthy) and Jack (Chris O’Dowd), a once-seemingly happy couple with a young child, are now confronted with an inexplicable loss. Jack is admitted to a mental health facility, while Lilly is left is to pick up the pieces at home and work. She drives religiously to visit him each week. She may be putting up a brave front, but there is a clear avoidant pattern as to her own thoughts and feelings with regard to the burdensome subject. When pressed to seek help, she is defensive.
Director - Theodore Melfi
Cast – Melissa McCarthy, Chris O'Dowd, Kevin Kline, Kimberly Quinn
Streaming On – Netflix
Refusing to address the elephant in the room comes with consequences. Lilly’s annoying boss at the supermarket tells her that her focus is off. His crass attempt at empathy is deplorable, but the larger point of her life unravelling (unbeknownst to her) is taken. Her husband’s therapist hands her the address of a person she could speak to. Whom she meets, in turn, is somebody most unexpected.
The emotional/psychological elements of the narrative are handled sensitively. Both partners’ divergent journeys of grief are given equal credence. Lilly and Jack may be at varied ends of the spectrum when it comes to coping with an irreparable loss, but their pain is explored to the fullest extent. Jack is unable to conjure the name of his daughter without suffering a breakdown, while Lilly, because of her attitude of moving forward at all costs, fails to realise how badly off she truly is. When the therapist-turned-veterinarian Dr. Larry Fine (Kevin Kline) is speaking to her at their very first meeting, Lilly says (bringing up her daughter’s death), “My husband Jack didn’t handle it so good.” And his response is, “And you did?” She is at a loss for words, only managing, “No, no, I mean…It’s a good question.” This exchange, in addition to some exceedingly raw emotions washing off Melissa McCarthy’s face, is the initial step in understanding her current internal state. She finds herself at an impasse. On the one hand, there is her husband’s precarious mental health to contend with, and on the other, there is a complete disregard for her own healing.
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The acting in The Starling is right up there! Be it McCarthy’s sheer emotive range as the primary character taking on the heavy psychological burdens of her partner or O'Dowd’s touching portrayal as the grieving father and absentee husband or Kline’s understanding therapist/good Samaritan act, they’re all very believable and all very good. It is the story that fails to pass muster, however. The premise of the unwelcome bird, the titular starling, as a metaphor for Lilly’s fight for the relationship, is quite simplistic. The same narrative could well have taken place sans the unnecessary magic realist infusion of the aggressive little avian. The second aspect of The Starling that fails to prove plausible is the bond between Lilly and Dr. Fine. Why a former therapist (now busy veterinarian) would help a stranger (even though she comes recommended by an old colleague) for gratis beats me? Shouldn’t he have at least charged Lilly a nominal fee in order to not blur the lines between psychiatrist and good Samaritan/friend? These lines are crossed when she lands up at his clinic and home unannounced; he tells her that such a thing isn’t done, but refuses to do anything about it when it becomes a repeat offence. And why would one of Jack’s therapists send Lilly to this man, when she knows fully well that he hasn’t practiced therapy for a decade. It would have made sense to keep Dr. Fine as a shrink with no attachments, instead of this convoluted plotline that frankly fails to work.
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Melissa McCarthy and Chris O'Dowd deserve a pat on the back for their sensitive roles depicting varying elements of the grieving process. Though McCarthy’s performance isn’t as exceptionally intense as her “Lee” Israel from Can You Ever Forgive Me?, she holds her own in this up and down story. She is the character grappling with the most fundamental questions. One must also commend O’Dowd…from the tech geek Roy in the uproarious IT Crowd to his many roles from Bridesmaids to Girls and beyond, one can’t help but marvel at this man’s impressive repertoire. A telling scene in group therapy where he breaks down, describing his wife’s inability to quit, and him “wanting to not quit with her”, is one of the film’s acting standouts.