Loss has the power to disrupt every aspect of normal life. Activities not related in any way to a person or thing that is gone may still be upsetting and difficult to complete due to the effect that an absence has on an individual’s overall wellbeing. Partners, family members, and friends respond differently to the same situation, and the incongruity of reactions and differing ability to return to some sort of normalcy can permanently alter a relationship. The Starling charts separate attempts to find solace and hope in the face of devastating loss.
Lilly (Melissa McCarthy) and Jack (Chris O’Dowd) are struggling following the death of their infant daughter. Jack is in a psychiatric facility receiving the help that he has been declared to need, while Lilly works a grocery store job and searches for fulfillment. When a counselor at the facility recommends that Lilly go see someone, she is surprised to learn that the acclaimed therapist, Larry (Kevin Kline), now works as a veterinarian. Initially uninterested in hearing what he has to say, Lilly finds herself drawn to him for support when she is repeatedly attacked by a bird that seemingly has it out for her.
Having McCarthy and O’Dowd play these lead roles should indicate to audiences some idea of what they’re in for tonally. Both are skilled comedic actors who have ventured successfully into drama recently in their careers, typically bringing with them a wit that makes even serious material slightly entertaining and enjoyable. That’s absolutely the case here, assisted by Kline as someone easily baited into returning to a time in his life he has vowed to leave behind but clearly still longs for to some degree.
The bird that makes Lilly’s life a living hell is a humorous device that’s certainly literal but is evidently also meant as a metaphor. Lilly cannot go on the way she is because the bird won’t leave her alone, and that forces her to confront what she hasn’t been willing to engage with since losing her daughter and being separated physically from her husband. Naturally, she is resistant, angry at the bird and not eager to dig further into what may be causing her unhappiness aside from something tangible and identifiable.
Director Theodore Melfi’s two most recent films, Hidden Figures and St. Vincent, serve as a solid framework for the genre hybridity that defines this story, which approaches loss through a distinctly lighthearted lens since life often does offer funny moments even in the middle of overwhelming misery. Screenwriter Matt Harris pens an involving script with humorous banter and affecting moments that are fluidly interwoven. Its course is moderately predictable, and its narrative is ultimately slightly more full of levity than sincere substance.
McCarthy and O’Dowd are well-cast, and surrounded by an ensemble that includes many fantastic actors in minimal roles. Among them are Timothy Olyphant, Skyler Gisondo, Daveed Diggs, Rosalind Chao, and Veronica Falcón. They augment simple, inconsequential scenes, and their appearances are fleeting enough that audiences will likely wish they were far more substantial. While Kline plays a more major part, this is really McCarthy and O’Dowd’s show, and it’s great to see them spotlighted for their unique skill set. Both appeared together previously in St. Vincent, and even if Melfi’s films might not be all that resounding and memorable, this one only further underlines that they make for an enticing viewing experience that audiences are very likely to enjoy.
The Starling is screening at the Toronto International Film Festival in the Special Presentations section and will be released on Netflix on Friday, September 24th.