The Starling squanders any of its emotional potential with lazy manipulation: TIFF 2021 Review

There’s a hopeful message about tackling grief in a healthy manner and how there’s the possibility of light at the end of darkness present in the core of The Starling.  With so many promising ingredients too, Theodore Melfi‘s feel-good dramedy is likely to lure audiences in with a false sense of security, promising potential but ultimately squandering it.

Messy with its execution – the film’s flitting between exaggerated comedy and commentary on mental health never feels in line – The Starling starts off on a schmaltzy note, presenting the loving Lilly (Melissa McCarthy) and Jack Maynard (Chris O’Dowd) in a state of familial bliss as they paint the room for their daughter, Katie.  Happiness fades within minutes though as the fast-forward to one year later indicates Katie has passed away from SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome), Jack has checked himself into a mental health facility, and Lilly just goes through the motions in their empty home.

In the current climate where mental health and tested mortality are subjects more frequently in conversation, The Starling has the foundation to apply commentary in a very real manner.  The different mechanisms of coping between Lilly and Jack, and their subsequent hope to find a way back to each other, could have truly been worth exploring, but Melfi and screenwriter Matt Harris opt for emotional manipulation in a way that feels completely disingenuous to the material.

The starling of the title is also a plot device that adds very little weight to the overall narrative too.  A pesky bird that readily attacks Lilly in her yard, the CGI-creation drives oddly slapstick sequences that, whilst not out of McCarthy’s wheelhouse, don’t feel remotely organic to the overall arc; the only positive thing to come out of the bird’s appearance is it introduces Lilly to veterinarian Dr. Larry (Kevin Kline), a former psychologist who becomes something of an unofficial guide for the broken Lilly.  Kline and McCarthy play off each other so wonderfully that their conversations about the dissection of grief hints at the effective drama this could have been, but so little ever materialises.

A Hallmark movie that constantly lingers on the edge of something deeper, The Starling is a frustrating effort that wastes its vast ensemble – Timothy Olyphant, Loretta Devine, and Laura Harrier all appear in thankless roles – and only remains as watchable as it does because McCarthy, Kline, and O’Dowd are as reliable as they are.  A poignant drama this is not, The Starling feels designed by committee to evoke an emotional reaction from its audience without actually putting in any of the work in order to do so.


The Starling is screening as part of this year’s Toronto Film Festival, which is being presented both in-person and virtually between September 9th and 18th, 2021.  For more information head to the official TIFF page.  It will be available to stream on Netflix from September 24th, 2021.

Peter Gray

Seasoned film critic. Gives a great interview. Penchant for horror. Unashamed fan of Michelle Pfeiffer and Jason Momoa.