During the third act of starlingtherapist-turned-veterinarian Dr. Larry Fine (Kevin Kline) talks with Lilly Maynard, who became his de facto patient, about some of the unique characteristics of the titular bird, a pair of which have nested in his yard and taken to bombarding her in swoop. They work as a couple, Larry tells her, co-parenting their young like most birds don’t, sharing the responsibilities; they’re not supposed to be alone, he says. To which Lilly, who is struggling to patch up her relationship with her husband, Jack (Chris O’Dowd), replies, “Real subtle stuff, Larry.”
The line is meant to be a moment for self-conscious laughter, as we nod to how the starling serves as a stand-in for all the struggles Lilly faces in her life. But there really isn’t an easy way to self-depreciate on how you do a boring thing, while erasing the fact that you’re doing a boring thing. As sincerely as starling At times trying to deal with tough issues like heartbreak, sanity, and the fraying of marital bonds, it’s always crippled by how committed Matt Harris’ script feels to spinning absolutely everything around that pesky bird.
There’s a heartbreaking reality at the heart of Lilly and Jack’s split: the death of their baby girl, Katie, from SIDS a year earlier. As Lilly tries to persevere through her days as the assistant manager of a grocery store, Jack struggles to progress at an inpatient mental health facility after a breakdown, with Lilly’s weekly visits seeming more obligatory than mutually useful. And when Lilly is back home, trying to maintain her large estate on her own, there’s this little territorial winged threat to contend with.
Structurally, starling faces complications in his goal of giving equal time to both grieving parents. There are attempts to sneak some comic relief into Jack’s story, whether by supporting characters like Loretta Devine’s nervous patient, or Jack’s frustrated reactions to his deadpan therapist, but ultimately his story is much more serious and by necessity more isolated. O’Dowd delivers an effective performance when it comes to conveying Jack’s state of mind at its most fragile, but his half of the film can’t quite provide the spark that comes from the scenes of McCarthy with Kline, as the two versatile actors play off each other. comic and dramatic. A frustrated McCarthy is almost always an entertaining McCarthy, and she gets the showy scenes as her bottled up emotions finally start to come to a boil.
The real obstacle to starlinghowever, is the starling, who is front and center from the opening credits, when director Theodore Melfi (who worked with McCarthy on St. Vincent) focuses on a CGI bird attempting to survive a threat to its life while bringing nesting materials to its mate (nudge). When Lilly attempts to tend a garden in her backyard, she rants about the birds pecking at her produce (she fails in her attempts to nurture something, nudge nudge). When she considers killing the starling by going straight to the nest, she stops dead when she sees her newborn chicks (nudge-ity-nudge-nudge). Words are spoken about how certain things in nature are part of the natural order and beyond our control (please consider donning ribbed pads to protect against elbow bumps). There’s symbolism, and then there’s a symbol that becomes so oppressive that it threatens to suffocate everything else.
starling isn’t the first movie to deal with grieving parents at a crossroads, and it’s understandable that a writer would look for a twist that would make his story stand out. It’s easy to imagine a version of this story that is simply about two people at polar extremes facing the same tragedy, and how difficult it might be for them to give each other what they respectively need. Maybe that sounds a little familiar, and maybe that’s a harder sell than something that finds elements of fantasy in the actions of a fantastical, almost anthropomorphic bird. But it’s harder to feel the pain when it feels like all we’re doing is reading the Cliff Notes, telling us what the starling represents in each successive chapter.