Lilly and Jack Maynard know firsthand the meaning of “for better or worse.”
The married couple, played by Melissa McCarthy and Chris O’Dowd in the upcoming Netflix film “The Starling,” knew “for better” when they had the thrill of welcoming their first baby into the world. But when a case of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) snatched her from them, it seemed like “for worse” had struck full force.
Directed by Theodore Melfi (the Oscar-nominated producer of “Hidden Figures”) and written by Matt Harris, this quiet drama of 1 hour and 42 minutes tells the story of Lilly and Jack’s struggle to heal their hearts and their marriage. For her, that means figuring out what to do with the now unoccupied nursery that they painted themselves, and for him, it means spending some time in a psychiatric hospital.
Such a heavy premise needs at least a few lighthearted elements to offset the mood. While attempting to revitalize her garden, Lilly’s encounter with a territorial bird, a starling, becomes both a source of comic relief and an outlet for her emotions, from anger and combativeness to compassion and hope. The little bird becomes a witness and companion to her grieving process and provides the film its title.
Still, the film leaves something to be desired, and that is human companionship.
As many people who have experienced family tragedy can attest, a key component to the healing process is the support and affection of loved ones. But in “The Starling,” Lilly and Jack find themselves alone in their struggle. We know nothing of their parents, who might have shared their grief as grandparents and been a source of wisdom and stability.
Neither do we encounter any friends around the couple. Instead, we get Lilly’s grocery store co-workers, who spend most of their time pitying or berating her distracted behavior, and well-intentioned but unhelpful therapists.
Lilly’s interaction with former therapist-turned-veterinarian Larry (Kevin Kline) is the closest thing to a constructive friendship that we see, but even that is limited to brief conversations and short snatches of advice rather than personal interest and care. What’s more, the couple expresses no connection with a faith, philosophy, or moral backbone that could uplift them; they are simply alone in the dark with their grief.
This dearth of relationships casts a shadow of bleakness over the film. And while we might like to believe that it is also unrealistic, the mounting pile of surveys, studies, and commentary on “the loneliness epidemic” among young adults today suggests “The Starling” is a revealing reflection on modern culture.
Although observers may disagree about the underlying causes of the rise of loneliness (social media, polarization, or the disintegration of the family), the fact remains that more and more people find themselves with few or no companions to lean on when times get tough. As a result, “The Starling” may hit home for more audience members than we would like to admit.
Be that as it may, the realism of the film is small comfort to Lilly and Jack’s plight. They seem resigned to their isolation, and the film’s ending implies that the two of them simply needed to tough it out on their own in order to obtain any sense of resolution.
In the end, we are left with the impression that if only they had just one loved one to support them, they could have conquered half of their struggles halfway through the film.
It could also be the case that Harris and Melfi chose to strip Lilly and Jack of every other relationship in order to highlight the central one: their marriage. After all, as they try to learn how to speak of their daughter without anguish, they also face the challenge of rebuilding their relationship, which has been shaken since the sudden absence of a baby that bonded them.
We see Jack wondering aloud how he could ever go back to being the cheery husband he had been, and we see Lilly’s fruitless attempts to brighten his mood when she calls or visits him.
While it’s better to watch moments like this than a couple simply giving up on each other, the film makes it difficult for the audience to invest in the marriage because we only see it at rock bottom.
We catch glimpses of their happy days in a handful of silent flashbacks (exchanging smiles while driving in the car or while resting a hand on Lilly’s pregnant midsection), and the brief opening scene is our only exposure to the couple cooing over their baby.
It’s fair to say that the thrust of the movie is their facing hardship together, but without a sense of how the protagonists lived and loved before that hardship, the audience has little chance to fall in love with them and their marriage so that they can root for its success when the going gets tough. And without convincing us what they are fighting for in their marriage, the resolution they find, though satisfying, falls short of feeling like a victory.
If nothing else, what “The Starling” does accomplish is an affirmation of marriage, for better or worse. Even if Lilly and Jack are not a couple that uplifts and inspires audiences, they are a couple that survives, and that is more than what many couples can say, either on or off the screen.
“The Starling” tackles the somber topic of parental loss and marital struggle with no filters and little sense of relief. Had it dedicated more time to its protagonists’ personalities before their tragedy shook them, and had it added some supportive relationships to their journey, it would have been more relatable and uplifting for its audience, especially those less familiar with family tragedy and mental illness.
Still, the film succeeds in conveying a vital message to today’s culture: that even when happy days have left a marriage, persevering in love is always worthwhile.
“The Starling” will be released in select U.S. theaters Sept. 17 and will be available to stream on Netflix Sept. 24.