Grace VanderWaal as Susan ‘Stargirl’ Caraway
Written by Julia Hart, Kristin Hahn & Jordan Horowitz
Disney+, the company’s much-ballyhooed direct-to-consumer streaming service, is mercifully without qualifier. What, exactly a Disney+ series or original film is supposed to be remains wonderfully open-ended, and on the feature side of things we’ve seen projects as diverse as the goofy Christmas comedy Noelle, the heart-tugging based-on-a-true-story Togo and the bizarre little kid detective story Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made. Adding to this diverse stable is this week’s Stargirl, a based-on-a-YA-bestseller drama that asks you to find the magical in the mundane.
Stargirl opens with narration from our main character Leo (Graham Verchere), a high schooler who used to be a weirdo until it got him unwanted attention; from then on his number one goal was to blend in and not be seen. So far, it’s worked out pretty well. Until, on his birthday, he meets Stargirl (Grace VadnerWaal), a girl who mysteriously shows up at his sleepy Arizona high school after being homeschooled. She is everything he used to be but gave up: wild, uninhibited, creative, and bold. Her style is comprised of bright colors and clashing patterns and instead of suffering ridicule and scorn, her extreme quirkiness is invited and celebrated – after she does an impromptu musical number at a Friday night football game, the previously lousy team suddenly wins. When Stargirl is around, the dreariness seems to lift; Leo’s sleepy town becomes embroidered with elaborate stitching, adorned with flowers, and speckled with glitter.
And, of course, Leo falls in love with Stargirl. Their relationship blossoms and, of course, faces some hurdles. It would be easy to classify Stargirl as a manic pixie dream girl, that aloof, unattainable, effortlessly creative archetype best exemplified by Zooey Deschanel in 500 Days of Summer. That type has become quite tired over the years, not to mention hopelessly exist. So the idea that the same type of character would just be transplanted to high school feels icky and boring. But Stargirl is different from those thanks to one simple twist, established early in the film and reiterated repeatedly: she actually might be magic.
Not only does she make the football team score, but there’s a wonderful moment when she’s having a heart to heart with Leo and it starts to rain. (Keep in mind that the movie is set in Arizona.) Leo is flummoxed: can this actually be real? And, by the end of the movie, a bigger question arises: does it even matter? In the world of Stargirl, a well-placed Beach Boys musical number can have the transformative power of a biblical miracle.
Stargirl is a movie of surprising power; it’s concerned with ideas about conformity and speaking your mind, shopworn ideas that are found in most, if not all, classic teen dramas. (The Breakfast Club immediately comes to mind.) But co-writer/director Julia Hart (Fast Color) gives the movie its own unique vibe; it’s unhurried and beautifully, sparingly shot by Bryce Fortner, letting the New Mexican landscapes (filling in for Arizona) take up the frame in strange, majestic ways. The movie is bursting with adorableness, embellished with details like Leo getting a new, oddly designed tie each year on his birthday (a nod to his deceased father) and his unwavering commitment to “old band” the Cars. But none of it feels cloying or manipulative, it’s all part of the world that Hart has conjured. The maintenance of tone and style, which are never overwhelmed and never overwhelming, is one of the key assets of the movie. You can tell it was based on some beloved YA material (in this case a novel by Jerry Spinelli) but it doesn’t feel slavishly devoted. There are new elements that weren’t present in the turn-of-the-millennium book, including a new, queer supporting character and a subplot involving a class-run video blog. These new details make Stargirl feel even more real and lived in. Even though it’s Disney+ it lacks the cutesy, saccharine feel of live-action Disney Channel content, where everything feels overly rehearsed and gag-oriented.
The other highlight is, of course, the kids. While the cast is uniformly wonderful (and there are a few terrific adult performances from Maximiliano Hernández and Giancarlo Esposito), both Verchere and VanderWaal give truly astounding performances. They’re both required to dramatize a wide array of emotional states, some of them quite subtly, and they accomplish them without histrionics or exaggeration. VanderWaal, in particular, manages to give life and depth to a character who, in the wrong hands, could have been two-dimensional (and covered in sparkles). Instead, she’s a fully realized character, who takes some heartbreaking turns (particularly in a section of the movie when Leo encourages her to be more “normal”) and is able to excel in elaborately choreographed musical numbers. Making her performance all the more amazing: she’s not a professional actor and is best known for winning America’s Got Talent. Also, she’s only 16. Verchere is wonderful too but has the less showy role, instead, he gives nuance and grace to a character that could have been steamrolled by Stargirl but instead maintains conflicted dignity. He gets to be both inspired and inspiring.
Stargirl isn’t the flashiest Disney+ original or the most exciting. It’s agreeably low-key, the kind of movie you can imagine yourself folding laundry to. But it’s also a movie of quiet power, one that will sneak up on you and leave you moved. Beautifully photographed, written and performed, it casts its own unique spell and will leave you utterly enchanted. There’s a sequel to the novel more explicitly centered on Stargirl. Here’s hoping Disney+ follows through.
Stargirl will begin streaming on Disney+ on March 13!