Toronto International Film Festival 2021 offered a very interesting lineup of films. On one hand we had crowd pullers like Denis Villeneuve’s ‘Dune’ and Edgar Wright’s ‘Last Night in Soho,’ on the other we had gritty dramas like Antoine Fuqua’s ‘The Guilty’ and Michael McGowan’s ‘All My Puny Seasons’. The festival also screened riveting documentaries like Mohammed Abugeth and Daniel Carsenty’s ‘The Devil’s Drivers’ and Gian Cassini’s ‘Comala’. But, perhaps, the most unique film to screen at the 2021 TIFF was Theodore Melfi’s dramedy ‘The Starling,’ based on a screenplay by Matt Harris. The film stars Melissa McCarthy, Kevin Kline, Chris O’Dowd, and Timothy Olyphant.
After Lilly (McCarthy) and Jack (Chris O’Dowd) lose their infant daughter, grief gets the better of Jack and he enrolls in a psychiatric clinic. But Lilly decides to deal with her guilt while going about her day to day affairs. She keeps her job at the grocery store, continues to look after the family’s expansive rural property, and dutifully visits her husband at the clinic every week. Even as she is trying to come to terms with the reality of her existence a combative bird takes nest beside her quiet home and repeatedly taunts and attacks the grief-stricken Lilly.
During one of the sessions at the psychiatric clinic where Jack is staying, a counselor suggests that Lilly should see a local therapist, Larry (Kevin Kline), after she suspects that Lilly isn’t tending to her own grieving process. But the counselor fails to mention that Larry gave up psychology long ago to become a veterinarian. Things come full circle when Lilly meets Larry as the latter’s veterinarian skills prove quite handy to the former in dealing with the territorial bird wreaking havoc in her garden.
The idea for the unique story stemmed from Matt’s personal experience of working in a mental health hospital to earn a living while attending graduate school for his Master’s. It evolved into a story of an inexplicable tragedy that befalls a couple as they are forced to reconcile their grief and seek a way forward if they are to share a future together. Matt wrote the script with the prize money he won from the prestigious Academy Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting. It made the rounds until director Ted Melfi fell in love with it. After years of near-misses, the film finally got made with its post-production getting completed during the pandemic.
Now, The Starling doesn’t offer a regular story. The ideas and themes that it deals with make it a very complex film. And perhaps that’s why it’s been in the waiting for so long. And if it wouldn’t have been for Ted Melfi it would have remained a screenplay for at least some more years to come. Melfi is known for films such as ‘Winding Roads,’ ‘St. Vincent,’ and ‘Hidden Figures,’ which was nominated for three academy awards including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. The Brooklyn-born filmmaker has a rare gift to deal with subjects that puts strong women characters in the mix of things. While ‘Winding Roads’ is about three women navigating their respective love lives, ‘Hidden Figures’ tells the story of a team of female African-American mathematicians who served a vital role in NASA during the early years of the U.S. space program.
In ‘The Starling,’ Melfi has his job cut out to make the rather peculiar character of Lilly look believable. And he does succeed in the task. Of course, the casting choice of his ‘St. Vincent’ star Melissa McCarthy in the role of Lilly proves to be an inspired one. McCarthy is one of the few actors around who are capable of making the audiences laugh and cry at the drop of a hat. I remember recently watching her in the Hulu show ‘Nine Perfect Strangers’ wherein during one of the funny scenes she chokes on a grape. McCarthy is so good in the scene that I just couldn’t hold back my laughter in spite of the precarious nature of her situation. From that point onwards in the show whenever she appears on the screen she is able to punctuate the tension. But few minutes into ‘The Starling,’ I totally forgot about the character in ‘Nine Perfect Strangers’ and all I really cared about was Lilly. That’s how good an actor McCarthy really is.
‘The Starling’ is a deeply philosophical film that is not easy to watch if you are looking for your regular escapist entertainment. It’s a movie that demands patience. But, patience does have its rewards. McCarthy’s layered performance alone makes it worth a watch. The chemistry between McCarthy and Kline is what holds the movie together. Melfi proves that what’s good on paper can also be successfully translated on the screen as long as a director is willing to back it up and he/she has access to good actors.