After years on the “Black List” for most liked unproduced screenplays in Hollywood, The Starling is finally here, and thankfully it is well worth the wait. If one has lost a loved one recently, this film may provide the balm of looking forward and moving on after grief. Director Theodore Melfi is no stranger to TIFF, having screened his movies St. Vincent and Hidden Figures at the fest, so it is even more fitting that his most personal project yet also has a TIFF slot. Melfi lost his mother while making the film, which was made pre-covid but finished during covid. One can feel the passion behind the scenes in bringing this delightful project to light. I certainly never suspected a CGI bird would have me in tears, but here we are.
A year on from the tragic loss of their only daughter, Lilly (Melissa McCarthy) and Jack (Chris O’Dowd) are dealing with their emotions in two very different ways. Jack attempts suicide, and then is admitted into a facility that will help him; Lilly is going through the motions at her department-store job. She is so focused on Jack getting better, that she has not even taken the time to properly digest her own feelings. A tiny bird will change everything: one small (and extremely territorial!) European starling.
Lilly first encounters the little bird while gardening. The starling runs into her, then proceeds to rush at her face and cuts her, drawing blood. Taken aback, Lilly tries to solve her situation with the bird, who begins to terrorize her around every bend. At the urging of Jack’s therapist, Lilly begins seeing a therapist of her own—quirky veterinarian Larry (Kevin Kline). His advice about the starling becomes key in unlocking Lilly’s feelings about the bird, and about the deeply-felt loss of her daughter, Katie. On the flipside, Jack is working through issues of his own, as he continues to struggle with depression and feelings of hopelessness. He is lost and aimless even as he tries new things through group therapy and exercises like pottery-making. In order to truly move on from Katie, both Jack and Lilly will need to make profound changes.
In other hands, The Starling could have easily been a gimmicky exploitative take on the grieving process. It helps to have two actors as your leads who are not necessarily well-known for their dramatic chops, but for their careers in comedy. Pad out the cast with Santa Clarita Diet alumni Skyler Gisondo and Timothy Olyphant, and one would be forgiven for thinking The Starling would be nothing more than a disposable dramedy for the straight-to-video pile. The script manages an impressive tightrope act with its approach to comedy and sadness, meeting at the perfect middle ground. The soul-crushing performances from O’Dowd and McCarthy serve to tug at the heartstrings, and bring to life characters that are already written so well on the page. O’Dowd legitimately brought me to tears with one of his break-downs, while McCarthy’s relationship with the starling is the heart of a film aptly named The Starling.
The movie is not all heavy even though its subject matter certainly may be, and the lighter moments work together as harmoniously as the darker ones. When Lilly goes shopping for bird deterrents, the person helping her at the store offers up some spikes, to which Lilly responds, “ I don’t need to kebob them.” The humor is subtle and cleverly-executed, instead of relying on cheap gags or physical humor.
Speaking as someone who has lost a parent within the last year, I know that the grieving process is completely different for everyone. I appreciated the care here to examine multiple points of view from two people who have experienced this same tragedy, but in their own separate ways. How do we get back to hope and happiness after a loss? I certainly don’t have the answer to that question, but I loved the journey we take with Lilly and Jack as they discover their own. The beauty in the film’s inherent simplicity in plotting lies in its approach to providing answers, and maintaining that there’s no cure-all for grief, or even a one-size-fits-most. Each person heals slowly and gradually in their own ways, and despite the intensity of the pain, must find a way to carry on. The Starling gave me hope in its promises that eventually, it does get better. If that’s not a message we all need in the wake of the world’s crushing pandemic, I don’t know what is.
The Starling screened at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival, and lunges for your garden when it debuts in select theaters on Friday, September 17, followed by a Netflix release on Friday, September 24.