Review by Sean Boelman
Based on the popular young adult novel by Jerry Spinelli, the newest Disney+ original offering Stargirl obviously has its heart in the right place, but unfortunately gets too tied up in cliches. Still, despite the often problematic nature of the script, inspired direction from Julia Hart (Fast Color) allows the film to be adequately cute and entertaining.
The movie follows a quiet boy who becomes intrigued by the mysterious and quirky new girl at school, sending him on a quest to learn more about her, and himself in turn. There is something off-putting about having a film centered almost entirely around a trope, especially one so markedly controversial as the “manic pixie dream girl”.
Admittedly, the movie is somewhat charming, and that is because of the unwaveringly bright and cheery tone. As is the case with many Disney films aimed at the pre-teen audience, the movie doesn’t feel like it takes place in the real world, but rather, a world built in the protagonist’s fantasies. However, this is particularly uncomfortable in this case.
The film’s ultimate message is that it is always best to be oneself, but the fact that it takes the protagonist hurting someone else to figure this out is concerning. The movie’s climax (which involves the The Cars song “Just What I Needed”) is a bit too on-the-nose for the film’s good (it’s not hard to figure out what — or more accurately who — the protagonist needed in order to grow).
The characters’ arcs are also extremely underwhelming. The movie follows the beats of a run-of-the-mill romantic drama to the point, and a few solid moments aside, most of the film feels exhaustingly predictable. Very little of the movie’s emotion feels earned, particularly in relation to the finale of the film, which desperately wants the viewer to feel something but instead comes across as empty.
Perhaps the most disappointing thing about this movie is that, although the script has a fair share of weaknesses, the cast is very talented. Graham Verchere (who has done mostly TV work since his excellent turn in retro horror Summer of 84) is able to ground the movie despite the ridiculousness of the role he is given.
That said, the shining star of the film is undeniably young singer-songwriter Grace VanderWaal in her cinematic debut. Thanks to some musical sequences directed wonderfully by Hart, she is given plenty of room to show her talents. It will be exciting to see what she can do with material that offers more layers of emotional depth.
Stargirl is ultimately pretty enjoyable for what it is, but the inherent flaws in the premise prevent it from being the sweet and wholesome family fun that it hopes to be. What may have seemed endearing on the page ends up coming off as largely insincere on the screen.
Stargirl debuts on Disney+ on March 13.
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