Stargirl Movie Review
A charmingly loyal adaptation of an unfortunately flawed young adult novel
This comes from my Letterboxd profile, where I write reviews of every movie I watch.
There's a particular reason why I wanted to see this film when I got Disney+. Stargirl, as a book, means a lot to me. I don't remember many specific elements from the book, but I remember the plot generally enough. It's the experience I had with it that really made it memorable for me. It was my sixth-grade year, and our LA teacher read this book to us for class. I was so invested in the relationship between Leo and Stargirl that I remember being annoyed when I found out I had taken a sick day when my teacher read the chapter where their relationship actually initiated. There was something about this fictional relationship (and fictional relationships in general) that stuck with me, probably because I was so focused on wanting my own relationship and dreamt that I would immediately find someone like that and have an incredible relationship with them and all that nonsense. Of course, that's not how middle school or even high school relationships go, but that's how my brain saw it. In fact, in a lot of ways, I think I'm still struggling with the fanciful ideas of being in a relationship vs. the actual reality of how one begins. I could go on for hours about all of this stuff, but that's not what you came here for. Even though they're related to my thoughts on both the book and the movie, they're not the point of this review. You want to hear my thoughts on the movie, so let's talk about the movie.
For starters, Grace VanderWaal is a very unexpected surprise. When I remember hearing news about Stargirl becoming a movie, she definitely would never have crossed my mind because I really only know of her from one or two songs of hers. When I saw her in the trailer, I was hesitant, not because I didn't think she could pull off that role, but because the trailer didn't necessarily sell me one way or another on how they portrayed the characters. This is basically another case of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood for me -- I was hesitant about Tom Hanks' performance only because the trailer didn't 100% sell me on the portrayal of Mr. Rogers, but in the context of the film, as soon as he uttered his first line, I knew he was the perfect choice. It's the same thing here: as soon as Stargirl pops up on the screen for the first time, I knew Grace Vanderwaal was, plainly and simply, Stargirl. She oozes charm and likability everywhere she goes in this movie, and of course, her singing and ukulele-playing is phenomenal as usual. She really just got the bubbly, loose demeanor and charisma of Stargirl perfectly, and I adored every second of her performance. Graham Vercere is also very likable as Leo, and the chemistry between him and Stargirl is still the best part of this adaptation.
That's what stuck out to me about the movie as well -- I don't know what this film did so differently from so many other movies like this, but I could just feel the nostalgia of being a teenager and being truly in awe of someone and their personality emanating from every frame. It truly feels like Leo and Stargirl are falling in love for the first time, and this film reminded me in a lot of ways of the first time I would say I truly fell in love. In fact, a montage of their relationship genuinely made me choke up because it reminded me so much of the experiences I had connecting with someone who just awed me every single time just by talking with me and appreciating me for who I was. It's something about this movie's simplistic cinematography and very specific sound mixing, I think, that just brings you back to that time where you're listening to music walking home from a crush's house, elated by how well spending the afternoon with them went. It's a feeling that I don't think has been captured as authentically by any movie before this one, at least not for a while. There's just something really nostalgically special in the cinematography, the colors, the sound mixing, the character interactions, and Rob Simonsen's brilliant music that really makes this world from a teenager's point of view feel so authentic. For the record, by the way, I love Rob Simonsen at this point, because while I haven't seen the movie Tully, I've listened to the soundtrack multiple times and adore it, and I think his particular style of score was perfect for this movie.
That being said, this movie absolutely has its flaws. In fact, to what I remember of the original book, this movie is actually pretty loyal to it, so it also showcases some pretty major flaws with the original source material. The entire message of the story is to not let others tell you the kind of person you should be and find your own uniqueness, but that it's always hard to listen to that advice when you're a teenager. Unfortunately, in both the book and the movie, as a character, Leo not only tries to keep anything that keeps him unique hidden from those around him, but also tries to talk Stargirl into changing herself to stop getting made fun of. Admittedly, this part of the story could have been altered to feel more natural if the change was more subtle to the point where Leo didn't even realize what he was saying or suggesting. However, the way he keeps talking to Stargirl about her unique personality, it comes across like he's directly telling her, "Hey, you should change your weird and helpful personality so that people don't make fun of you." He's so blunt about it that it genuinely makes him come across as less likable, and it kind of ruins a really heartwarming musical sequence when Leo tries to talk to her about her actions in a really condescending way.
That's another thing, actually -- he's not the only person who does this. Everyone at school seemingly hates Stargirl for trying to be kind to another student (I won't explain specifically how because of spoilers, but you'll know when you see it). Every single person in the school starts to alienate her for simply doing something human, and this kicks pretty much the entire second half of the film into gear. I genuinely can't believe that so many people would be so mad at Stargirl for trying to do something kind and won't even let her explain herself because it's "outside the norm." Like, excuse me?! Again, I understand the point of this movie and the original book is that it's hard to stand out when everyone around you tells you to conform, but it feels so overt it's almost ridiculous. On top of that, as a whole, this movie does feel very cliched in regards to its formula. A teenage boy falls for the new girl, deals with feeling like an outsider, finds himself through this new girl, you get the idea, it's not exactly a very unique story. Oh, and of course, people have mentioned the fact that there are various points where people in this movie just don't have a microphone in huge spaces and somehow, their voices resonate throughout the entire space. I mean, come on, they can hear Stargirl sing without a microphone in a giant high school field, how does that work?!
As a whole, though, despite the very clear flaws of both the movie and the book, this story still has a very special place in my heart. Overall, I genuinely enjoyed this movie, with a fantastic soundtrack, likable performances, and nostalgic cinematography and sound mixing that just took me back to that time when I fell in love for the first time in a way that I don't think any other movie has. If you're a fan of the original book or just like teen romances in general, I think you'll at least enjoy watching this movie. If nothing else, I definitely want to go back and read the original book (and maybe its sequel) now and relive all the memories.
Letter Grade: B