Hope in grief
The Starling brings a comedic touch to a story of loss and marriage
The audience knows it’s coming. From high on a massive oak tree, the bird swoops down, diving repeatedly into the unsuspecting gardener’s head, knocking her to the ground before flying off, leaving the woman splayed out and bleeding.
The scene, which occurs 15 minutes into the new Netflix comedic drama The Starling, represents what’s happened to the main characters. Lilly (Melissa McCarthy) and her husband Jack (Chris O’Dowd) are two hurting people. They’ve been knocked flat by the death of their infant daughter, Katie.
We learn how Katie died, but mostly we see the aftermath. Jack is living in a mental health institution after attempting suicide (which we don’t witness). He can’t imagine teaching his grade-school art class again and despairs of ever feeling OK. Lilly is holding down her job at the local grocery—barely. The manager finds her often distracted, stacking bananas atop zucchini or obsessing over a display of Hostess Snoballs—which play a sweet role in Lilly and Jack’s relationship throughout the movie. Later, gazing on the idyllic landscape mural she and Jack hand-painted on Katie’s bedroom wall, Lilly’s eyes radiate grief.
Comedic aspects prevent the film from becoming morose. Adept actors and director Theodore Melfi make it work, bringing humor (though sometimes crude) to otherwise difficult situations: While silently grieving, Lilly absentmindedly sticks 5-cent price tags on grocery items, creating a buying frenzy. And Lilly bobbling around her overgrown garden wearing an oversized football helmet in case of another starling attack is smart, but also outright funny.
When Lilly agrees to meet with a recommended psychologist (Kevin Kline) for therapy, she learns he’s given up his practice to be a veterinarian. It’s impossible to succumb to sentimentalism as we watch Lilly engage him for counsel while he’s neutering a Boston terrier. Grudgingly, the doctor’s people-empathy reemerges as he listens to Lilly’s troubles. He presciently says—as much to himself: “Sometimes we push people away just to see if they come back.”
Other humor is more nuanced with tragic undertones. Impulsively, Lilly gives away all the baby-related furniture in exchange for a vinyl La-Z-Boy, which she plops in the middle of a room now empty except for a TV turned to an insipid religious talk show.
While the movie, rated PG-13, elevates marriage, family, and persevering through tragedy, it superficially broaches the spiritual. Routine swearing (with a couple of F-bombs) distracts from the healing message.
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