Trigger warning: child loss
As a bereaved parent, I tend to err on the side of skepticism regarding movies with a child loss plot. And when I heard about Netflix’s new film, The Starling, it was no exception.
The comedy-drama closely follows Lilly (Melissa McCarthy) and her husband, Jack Maynard (Chris O’Dowd), a year after the death of their infant daughter, Katie. Not long into the film, we discover that Jack was admitted to a long-term psychiatric facility following a suicide attempt, leaving Lilly to pick up the slack at their country cottage home and navigate their horrific loss alone.
Jack’s counselor eventually recommends that Lilly seek some help and offers up the name and number for Dr. Larry Fine, played by the rugged Kevin Kline. But when Lilly makes an appointment, she awkwardly figures out that Dr. Larry shifted his profession from people to animals and is now a beloved veterinarian in the small town. When pressed to disclose more about her past, Lilly reveals that Katie’s cause of death was SIDS. But with no animals in tow and a former psychologist who seems closed off to human patients, Lilly returns home.
She reaches a turning point in her grief as she looks to her rust-colored garden and knee-length grass. You can see the moment she realizes that the rest of the world has moved on, and she might be in this alone. She never expected that a pain-in-the-ass bird would be there harassing her as a constant reminder that she wasn’t the only one settling in at home.
The territorial menace strikes Lilly over the head repeatedly as she attempts to find solace in bringing her dead garden back to life with the same type of cheese and symbolism you’d expect from a Hallmark movie gone twisty. But, as fate would have it, Dr. Larry winds up taking an interest in the bird (a starling) and Lilly as they embark on a friendship filled with “therapy-not-therapy.”
With many big-name actors playing both leading and supporting roles in the film, you’d expect glorified reviews from publications. But as it turns out, the realistic take on Jack and Lilly’s unique ways to grieve wasn’t perceived by everyone as well as the filmmakers might have hoped.
The New York Times claimed it to be “for the birds,” and The Guardian said it was “a baffling waste of everyone’s time,” with both of them suggesting that it made light of a horrific situation and took shortcuts for the couple’s grief at every turn.
And while there were certain scenes I wish would have been expanded on a bit more, in no way did I feel like the film made light of child loss.
As someone who lost a child in the same way as the couple in the movie, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between my husband and me and Jack and Lilly. When your child dies, and their cause of death is SIDS, you live the rest of your life with a giant question mark hanging over your head. You don’t know who or what to blame because not even the most advanced researchers understand it. But, as humans, we want answers when something traumatic has happened to us. And when we can’t get them, we tend to blame ourselves or others.
I’d say that given the characters’ personalities, their way to grieve felt fitting. Maybe it’s because I was born with a dark sense of humor, but I appreciated that this film didn’t shy away from blending grief with humor. I’ve always thought that laughter has a place in healing from trauma. Not only that, but sometimes people use humor as a defense mechanism too.
We saw Jack using untimely not-so-funnies at the mental health facility as a way to cope. And speaking as a mom who has lost a child to SIDS, it didn’t offend me in the slightest bit. If I thought anything, it was that I respected the way ‘The Starling’ dived into the taboo topic of a father’s perspective on grief in a way few films have in the past.
Typically, Hollywood portrays the mother as the one who is spiraling down the rabbit hole following the loss of a child. But this film reminded its viewers that a dad’s grief is just as painful and valid as a mother’s. And when they come together, it becomes that much more challenging. You have to independently find each other again after so much of who you were together is gone.
Jack and Lilly’s daughter had died over a year ago, and I wonder if skeptics took note of this. Moreover, this film’s setting wasn’t during a period that would display the excruciatingly outward signs of mourning that are most visible in those early days of grief. Sure, their pain was still raw and more painful than you can imagine and probably always will be to some degree. But bereaved parents can’t cry every day, all day, and forever. At some point, you have to pick up the broken pieces. Just as Lilly learns, the world keeps spinning with or without you.
Maybe some folks were disappointed in this film because it didn’t offer some grand revelation for Katie’s death or let us know how the couple would move forward. But so many parents like me lose their child without some great epiphany, and moving forward for us is day by day.
To those that would say ‘The Starling’ is an awkward depiction of grief, I’d like to remind them that grief itself is awkward.
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