Netflix film 'The Starling' highlights sanctity of marriage, hope amid grief, says director

'The Starling'
"The Starling" | Netflix

The new Netflix film “The Starling” highlights the beauty of marriage, the role humor plays in healing, and the fact that hope can be found amid even the deepest of grief, director Theodore Melfi has said. 

Starring Melissa McCarthy and Chris O’Dowd, “The Starling” follows Lilly and Jack, a married couple grappling with loss one a year after losing their baby daughter from sudden infant death syndrome. A grocery store worker, Lilly is fixated on her work, gardening — anything to distract herself from the tragedy. Meanwhile, Jack, a grade-school teacher, is being treated in a mental health facility, two hours away from his wife, for unmanageable depression.

As the couple attempts to work their way to the other side of grief, they’re also struggling to heal their marriage. With the help of former therapist-turned-veterinarian Larry (Kevin Kline), Lilly begins to tend to her own healing — and finds an unlikely metaphor for life in an annoying starling who won’t leave her alone.

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In an interview with The Christian Post, Melfi said he was initially drawn to the script of “The Starling” because it affirms the sanctity and beauty of marriage. Married for 25 years himself, Melfi said that everyone understands the work it “takes to be happily married” and “find joy in your spouse every day.” 

“It doesn't matter if it was a trauma or any kind of thing that causes a couple to start to become disjointed,” he shared. “But in this particular situation, a couple experiences a trauma. They’re deeply, deeply in love, and they don't know how to process it, together or individually. To me, that's such a compelling story and it's a compelling theme.”

Melfi added: “I love that the movie presents this big problem and that they stay together and work through it and come out on the other side.”

Melfi’s first feature since the wildly successful "Hidden Figures" in 2016, “The Starling” sprinkles humor throughout the drama. McCarthy brings her comedic genius to the forefront as Lilly futilely attempts to get rid of the territorial starling. Supporting characters including Timothy Olyphant, Daveed Diggs and Skyler Gisondo also bring moments of levity to an otherwise somber film. 

The director explained that in his mind, the best way to explore difficult themes like grief, loss and marital discord is through comedy. 

“That might sound ridiculous, but the truth is, comedy, to me, is like a great appetizer,” Melfi said. “It allows the audience to kind of open their palate, open up their spirit and their soul to be able to accept such deep or heavy kind of material and themes because they feel safe. They know that they can laugh. When people know they can laugh, they feel comfortable. You’re able to kind of open them up and allow them to accept this great message that you're trying to present to them.”

“I think it's what the world needs right now is a good laugh and a good cry,” he added. 

“The Starling” also touches on the issue of mental health. O’Dowd brings emotion to the role of Jack, a man unable to cope with the unthinkable pain of losing a child. Through his character, Melfi said, he hopes to break the stigma surrounding men getting professional help for traumatic experiences. 

“I think we're in a mental health crisis; we have been for many years,” he explained. 

“There's still some weird stigma about men getting help, and talking to someone and not being strong enough to deal with their own emotions or their own feelings. Chris does such a lovely, lovely job of portraying a real man that can't cope with something this heavy at this time in his life, and he gets help. He actually cracks himself open, and it gets to the other side. I think that's such a beautiful thing.”

The relevance of releasing the film at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the world is not lost on Melfi. The director said that in such times, it’s easy to forge ahead, brushing aside issues like relational pain and mental illness. 

But the way to move forward, he said, is to acknowledge the pain, sit with difficult emotions and work through them. There is hope, he stressed on the other side. 

“The entire world is struggling with grief and loss on some level. I don't know if [there's] a person alive now who hasn't experienced the death of someone they love or know, or the sickness of someone they love or know,” he said. “The world has been through collective suffering, collective grief. 

“There is a light on the other side of the tunnel," he added. "If you do the work and acknowledge the pain, and if you laugh, and if you cry, you will get better. I know that from my own personal experience.”

“The Starling” is rated PG-13 for thematic material, some strong language, and suggestive material. The comedy-drama will have a limited theatrical release on Sept. 17 and will be available to stream on Netflix on Friday, Sept. 24. 

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