Before there was a manic pixie dream girl, there was Stargirl, at least for the young-adult set. The 2000 novel by Jerry Spinelli has finally spawned a live-action adaptation, this time courtesy of Disney+ (and what incredibly perfect timing for them to have a new original film right now). 20 years isn’t that much time in terms of how drastically culture can shift, but when Spinelli wrote the story of a shy teenager who’s brought out of his shell by a mysterious, quirky, charming young woman with plenty of tricks up her sleeve seemingly intended to make him a better person, it felt fresher than such a story can feel after the introduction of the MPDG into pop culture. Stargirl has plenty of charms, and if you’re (like this reviewer) cooped up in your house for a few weeks, you can do a lot worse. But this film had the potential to be a lot more.
Set in Mica, Arizona, Stargirl is about Leo (Graham Verchere), an awkward kid who plays in the marching band for his school’s woefully terrible football team. He’s got a core set of friends, but is mostly just very lonely, having lost his father a few years before the story begins. One day, he meets a new student named Stargirl (Grace VanderWaal), whose clothing is goofy and gaudy, who carries around a ukulele and sings “Happy Birthday”, and who seems laser-focused on Leo as a person. Soon enough, Stargirl wins over Leo and the entire high school, even turning into a lucky charm of sorts for the now very-talented football team. But of course, such perfection can’t last for a while, as conflicts arise and Leo learns the limitations of how weird he’s willing to get.
Stargirl is, whatever else is true, something of an odd choice for Disney+ in terms of their original content. Previous titles, such as Togo and Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made, were easy enough to connect to earlier Disney films, as if these newer titles were pitched as, for example, “White Fang but with Willem Dafoe”. Stargirl, though, is in the vein of indie comedies like Garden State and (500) Days of Summer, though unquestionably targeted at a more family-friendly audience. DirectorJulia Hart brings a low-key energy to the film that journeyman filmmakers likely would avoid or simply not think of. One of the strongest elements of the film is the desert-derived visual aesthetic coupled with some music-video-style visual flair in the various scenes where Stargirl performs one or another older song on ukulele as a way to boost up her school’s spirits. (VanderWaal’s claim to fame prior to this film was performing on America’s Got Talent with her ukulele, a talent she shows off often here.)
Though the adaptation, which Hart co-wrote with Jordan Horowitz and Kristen Hahn, makes a few changes from the Spinelli book, there’s a core problem with the story itself that this film cannot solve. Once Leo meets Stargirl, he’s both very attracted to her and flummoxed by her. Talking to his mentor Archie (Giancarlo Esposito, one of the only familiar faces in the film), Leo asks, “Is she…magic?” It’s a question that speaks to a larger one: “Who is Stargirl?” Even the scant few biographical details we eventually learn about her fail to fill her in as a person. VanderWaal does a fine job as the character; the problem is that the entire story is from the perspective of those affected by her, who are also self-involved enough to never actually want to learn about who she really is. So in the end, the connection to films like Garden State is deeper than the surface, because we’re stuck in the perspective of a vastly less interesting male character. (We don’t quite get a moment like Natalie Portman foisting The Shins upon Zach Braff here, but Stargirl does pull out a record by The Cars that nearly tips into her saying that listening to them will save Leo’s life.)
Stargirl is a slight, but cute teen dramedy. Right now, that might be exactly what you want to watch. But it’s easy to watch this film, which mostly gets the Jerry Spinelli book quite right, and wish that it could’ve moved beyond the source material. Spinelli, a few years after the first book, wrote a sequel from Stargirl’s perspective. It would’ve been nice if he’d balanced the point-of-view writing in the first book between both Leo and Stargirl, but that never panned out. If only the film version, which largely hits the sweet spot of being well-paced, well-made, and well-acted without delving too deeply or interrogating its source, had expanded its viewpoint similarly. We’re probably not getting a sequel to this one.
/Film Rating: 6 out of 10