Rowlands and Tomei both received SAG Award nominations for their performances. The film's title refers to a song of the same name by Cyndi Lauper, which can be heard over the closing credits.
Mildred (Gena Rowlands) is a widow living with her rebellious, irresponsible twentysomething daughter Annie (Moira Kelly) in Salt Lake City. One day after a fight, Annie goes to live as a vagrant with her boyfriend, leaving Mildred alone for the first time in her life. Her wayward neighbor Monica (Marisa Tomei) knocks on Mildred's door, begging her to watch her young son, J.J (Jake Lloyd) so she can go to her work shift. Monica has kicked her abusive husband, Frankie, out of their house.
Mildred agrees to watch J.J., and offers to babysit and take him to school whenever Monica needs her to. Mildred establishes a close relationship with J.J. and Monica, and J.J. eventually comes to refer to her as "Auntie Mildred." Mildred reads to him, takes him to the park, and educates him on history by reading from her encyclopedias. At Thanksgiving, Mildred has Monica and J.J. over for dinner as well as her yuppie son Ethan (David Sherrill) and his wife Jeannie (Bridgette Wilson). Jeannie is perturbed by Monica's brash behavior and cursing, though Ethan and Mildred seem disaffected by her personality. Ethan suggests that Mildred should move to San Francisco with him and Jeannie.
Mildred spends Christmas with Monica and J.J., and babysits him on New Year's Eve. On Valentine's Day, Frankie comes to Monica's house in the middle of the night and begs to reunite with her, but she quietly listens to his pleas and does not open the door. Monica gets a babysitter for J.J. so she can go out for a night with Mildred, taking her to a local pub where she introduces her to her friend Big Tommy (Gérard Depardieu), a truck driver who expresses interest in Mildred. Monica leaves the bar without telling Mildred, and Big Tommy gives Mildred a ride home.
Mildred goes to visit Ethan and Jeannie in San Francisco, where he invites her to live on the top floor of their luxurious house overlooking the Bay Area, and reveals that Jeannie is pregnant. Mildred ultimately refuses Ethan's offer, which enrages him. Mildred returns home to find that Monica and Frankie have reconciled, and J.J. begins spending more time with his father, leaving Mildred depressed and alone.
One night, Mildred returns home to find Annie there. Annie asks Mildred if she could return home, saying that she now has a job and is applying to college. Mildred tells Annie that she has sold the house, and has to be out by the end of the month. Mildred goes on a date with Tommy, and confesses she doesn't know where she's moving to.
While Monica helps Mildred pack her house, she tells her how much Frankie has improved as a husband, but senses Mildred being distant. Frankie brings J.J. over, and he asks to talk to Mildred in private. J.J. gives her a drawing and thanks her for taking care of him, and the three say their goodbyes. Annie drives Mildred to the airport, though Mildred refuses to tell her where she's going, saying it's a secret.Gena Rowlands as Mildred "Millie" Hawks
Marisa Tomei as Monica Warren
Gérard Depardieu as Big Tommy Bellaveau
Jake Lloyd as J.J. Warren
Moira Kelly as Ann Mary Margaret 'Annie' Hawks
David Sherrill as Ethan Hawks
David Thornton as Frankie Warren
Bridgette Wilson as Jeannie Hawks
David Rowlands as George
Bobby Cooper as Bernt
Clint Howard as Gus
Jamie Bozian as James
The film was released theatrically in the United States on November 1, 1996 in a limited release in New York City. The film grossed a total of $272,542USD playing on three screens. The film late receive a wider release on Valentine's Day 1997.
Unhook the Stars received generally positive critical reaction. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars, calling it "a film of gentleness and low-key romance," and praised Rowlands' performance. Entertainment Weekly gave the film a B- rating, also praising the film's performances.
The New York Times again praised the performances in the film, but gave an ambivalent review, stating: "The impressive acting can cover up only so many glaring holes in a film that doesn't really know what it wants to say. Unhook the Stars isn't a story that had to be told but a sentimental contrivance constructed around its star."