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“Stargirl” is a well-meaning mess

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Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures
2stars
Cast: Grace VanderWaal, Graham Verchere, Giancarlo Esposito, Karan Brar
Director: Julia Hart
Release Date: March 13, 2020

It’s kind of hard to be optimistic about much of anything in March 2020, but, against all odds, I came into the new Disney+ film “Stargirl” with relatively high expectations.

“Stargirl” is a film based on a New York Times bestseller (that I admittedly had no familiarity with before now) and directed by Julia Hart, whose “Fast Color” was one of the more delightful hidden gems at the cinema last year. And it is debuting on a streamer that thus far has turned out a crop of somewhat middling, but undeniably charming original films.

So far, so good. But, man alive, “Stargirl” wore out its welcome quickly. Even for someone who wanted to like it (and I did enjoy it, to a certain extent), it was more than a little grating. It’s cloyingly sweet without earning the sentiment.

The titular “Stargirl” (played by Grace VanderWaal) is Stargirl Carraway, a homeschooler with a kooky fashion sense, a pet rat and an ever-present ukulele that she busts out at football games with no warning.

In other words, she’s a lot to handle, and the fact that this girl isn’t bullied when another character is beaten up simply for wearing a snazzy necktie defies reason. That she is immediately embraced by the cheerleaders, football team and other cool kids is even more bizarre.

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Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

This is just one of the many suspension of disbelief moments in “Stargirl”.  Consider, for example, that Stargirl’s mother is a single mom who has homeschooled her daughter while also somehow having a successful career and affording to live in a fancy house. Or that a supporting character is literally named “Archie the Archaeologist” like a reject from a kid’s TV show. Or that nobody seems to care when Stargirl wins the first trophy in the school’s history.

And then there is Stargirl herself who is less a person than a collection of quirks that vaguely resembles a person. She never feels like a fully defined character, which is a problem considering that she’s the ostensible protagonist.

Equally problematic (maybe even more so) is that the Stargirl character seems to exist only to encourage and inspire her boyfriend Leo (Graham Verchere). She comes off as more of a magical cheerleader than a real person, which might be why the film keeps slipping back to Leo’s perspective.

“Before I talk about her, I have to talk about me!” Leo says as he is introducing Stargirl via voiceover. And, yes, this is an actual line of dialogue from the film.

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Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

I’m not sure whether Stargirl was ever meant to come off as a real person, but I’m pretty sure the other characters were. But everybody is thinly written – from Leo to his classmates to the occasional adults that pop in.

Populating the cast largely with unknowns  – the biggest star is probably Giancarlo Esposito of “Breaking Bad” as Archie- doesn’t really help these characters come to life. VanderWaal, an “America’s Got Talent” winner from 2016, seems a bit out of her depth in her first film role. Verchere is strikingly handsome, but has about as much personality as your average vacuum cleaner.

This isn’t to say that “Stargirl” doesn’t have its moments. The soundtrack, comprised of songs from the Beach Boys, Big Star, the Cars and more, is enjoyably eclectic and catchy. The singing voices of VanderWaal and Verchere are unpolished but not unpleasant, and Hart directs the musical numbers with a kineticism that is missing elsewhere in the film.

A script that initially seems to be overly simplistic eventually confronts Stargirl with the unintended consequences of her well-meaning acts of kindness. This adds a nice level of complexity, but it feels like a bit too little too late.

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Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

There’s a sweetness to the film, and the “be true to yourself” messaging is winning, but it also feels too obvious. Tweens might be charmed by it, especially if they’ve read the book, but adults will probably get a headache from all their eyerolling.

“Stargirl” (rated PG for mild thematic elements) is a step or two above the average Disney Channel movie but a steep step down from other original Disney+ fare. If you have a quiet day at home (and there may be many of those in our near future), you could do worse. But I’m also pretty sure you could do a lot better.

About the author

Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves.  He can be reached at staticandscreen@gmail.com.

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