Despite intentions to soar, Netflix’s melodrama “The Starling” remains flightless.
Directed by Theodore Melfi, “The Starling” seeks to illustrate the importance of moving forward in the wake of unthinkable tragedy. Chronicling a couple’s belabored procession through grief, the movie insists substance will be found underneath its mawkish plumage, yet viewers hungry for moving melodrama are left peckish.
Opening shots capture a flock of birds flying in stunning formation. This shifting composite, formed out of hundreds of individual fliers, captures a sense of fluidity in flux — a clear image of unity in change.
This starkly contrasts the drab grocery store where grieving mother Lilly Maynard (Melissa McCarthy) limps about her day. With opaque eyes, she meets her manager’s (Timothy Olyphant) gaze as he tells her to “get with it.” A large ask, considering Lilly’s infant daughter, Katie, had died less than a year before. Unsurprisingly, she seems equally inconsolable when other community members offer more thoughtful encouragement.
Even this supermarket mundanity seems preferable to the dreary psychiatric facility Lilly’s husband, Jack (Chris O’ Dowd), finds himself in. Nothing can penetrate the blanketing chill of his daughter’s memory — including any moments of truly captivating dialogue. It’s a shame Jack’s story is enshrouded by this looming loss, as his story has powerful potential. An elementary school art teacher, he seeks calm in creativity — but can’t outcraft his unrest.
In one of the movie’s first scenes, Jack and Lilly work together on painting a mural in their soon-to-be-born daughter’s bedroom. They each work on their own tree: Jack’s detailed and shadowy, Lilly’s direct and unornamented. Together on the wall they inhabit, these trees serve as a symbol of what the movie could have been: two subjects complementing each other, finding warmth in a space of emptiness. Instead, they’re shadowed — their value obstructed by blocky writing and manipulative means — left to scavenge for charm in their chipping.
The couple find themselves in a fraught routine, both confronting the question of restarting — how do they begin again, together? This sunken stagnancy is disrupted when a starling starts a nest in Lilly’s backyard.
Deeply territorial and irrepressible, this bird serves as a symbol and scapegoat for Lilly’s trauma, pestering her on her journey through grief. There’s even a point where she becomes so overcome with its unrelenting attacks that she hurls a rock at the creature, nearly killing it in her hysterics.
The oddly well-suited man — who helps her with her broken bird and trauma alike — is a psychologist-turned-veterinarian, Larry (Kevin Kline), a man whose conduct is no less looney than unethical. Nursing the injured bird back to health, he muses: “Starlings are different than other birds. When they mate, they build a nest together and they protect the nest. Together. They even feed the hatchlings together. They’re just not to exist in the world alone.”
The symbolism is glaring. She attempts to vanquish her pain — only by nurturing it is she able to let it go. The bird lives, but any subtlety dies.
It becomes clear that Lilly grieves the absence of her husband as much as she does the loss of her daughter. Allowing its sensitivity to be eclipsed by scheme, this movie treats tragedy as instrumental in its orchestration of resolution.
With weighted topics such as infant mortality and suicide, a jester’s feather can tip the scales between essential relief and outright obtuseness — and the balance is handled clumsily. Moments of dull-witted density prevent valid moments of truth from taking flight.
In a rare moment of vulnerability, Jack admits while Lilly’s tenacity inflames him, it’s ultimately her resilience that keeps him moving forward. Teary, he resolves, “I want to not quit with her.”
Were these moments — embers of tenderness— not doused in syrupy cliche, they could have kindled the flame of a genuinely heartwarming event.
People often fail to recognize the path to acceptance and moving forward can simply mean not quitting. However, this perseverance can quickly turn tireless. In its efforts to paint itself in a light of redeeming reactivity, “The Starling” clips its wings of any expressive truthfulness.
“The Starling,” rated PG-13, is available for streaming on Netflix.