Mixing a potentially broadly comedic element with an almost melodramatic tragic element is courting disaster. Go too far in either direction and the other is torpedoed as well. It takes just the right cast, as well as the right filmmaker, to pull it off. Luckily, The Starling has that, especially in terms of its actors and actresses. Debuting at the Toronto International Film Festival, it likely won’t contend for Oscars, but it’s likely to move plenty to tears when Netflix drops it later on this year. Plus, it happens to have one of the best soundtracks of 2021 (which actually could be where the Academy fancies it).
The Starling is at its best when it leans into the grief and trauma at its core. The other moments, which are occasionally very light, but often just odd, don’t really land as well. To some degree, that limits the effectiveness of the serious stuff, but the movie overcomes it, especially when you can just admire its cast in action.
Ever since Lilly (Melissa McCarthy) and Jack (Chris O’Dowd) lost their baby daughter, they’ve been wrecks. The former is absent minded at work and rooted in an aimlessness, while the latter has been checked into a mental health facility. Both claim to be dealing with their grief in their respective environments, but neither are. When Lilly attempts to make a mild move forward, she encounters odd resistance, from none other than a starling in her yard.
As she navigates the attacks from the bird, she also begins talking to therapist turned veterinarian Dr. Larry Fine (Kevin Kline). Of course, the starling is a metaphor for the situation, but Lilly is just concerned with feeling better. At the same time, Jack is slowly opening up to his shrink, though progress forward may be more difficult for him. To move on, they’ll also have to learn how to be a married couple again, which is hardly an easy proposition.
Melissa McCarthy is excellent here, getting a big role to explore. She’s at her dramatic best when allowed to play characters like this, as opposed to some of her mainstream comedies. McCarthy makes her role a bit quirky, but mostly just tragic. The same goes for Chris O’Dowd, who’s very good, while Kevin Kline is a comforting presence. With another scene or two, he could have been a fringe Best Supporting Actor contender. All three have solid chemistry with each other. Supporting players in this one include Loretta Devine, Daveed Diggs, Skyler Gisondo, Laura Harrier, Timothy Olyphant, Elisabeth Röhm, and more.
Director Theodore Melfi and writer Matt Harris are simple in their approach, which serves The Starling well when it gets serious. Some of the more overtly tearjerker moments are the most effectively handled. Then, there’s the bird. Not only is the metaphor very in your face and not subtle at all, it’s just too broadly done. Every single time the bird dive bombs Lilly, it feels like time is being killed. Less of that, more of the characters would have served the flick quite well. On a positive note, Harris and Melfi do have terrific musical cues, including a lovely new song from The Lumineers.
The Starling won’t be the big awards push from Netflix, but it’s quality entertainment for adults. It may be a little sloppy, but the emotions do feel legitimate. As long as you connect with them, it’ll work for you. Here at TIFF, the film worked for me, even if I was always aware of its shortcomings. To be sure, the good outweighs the bad here with this movie.