EVERYONE COULD USE A LITTLE STARGIRL
Mention the latest streaming movie, Stargirl on Disney+, and you may cringe at the thought of a saccharine sweet teen movie that you could easily take a hard pass on providing you are not familiar the very popular novel. I tried getting my wife to watch this movie for awhile. But, even the lure of its charming star Grace Vanderwaal, armed with her ukulele from America’s Got Talent, could not get her to view the film. Finally, it took the ten minute challenge to get her to give it a chance, and we both ended up loving it.
Stargirl was originally a YA (young adult) novel written by Jerry Spinelli in 2000. Critics and readers gushed over the main character and the message of nonconformity. The book received several awards and was a New York Times Best Seller. I have not read the book, but I know some who have and it seems that everything they loved about the Spinelli story has been captured beautifully by screenwriter Christian Hahn and director/writer Julia Hart.
Probably the biggest hurdle was casting the two leads. That could easily make or break this film. Director Hart has such a congenial and gentle touch, and the casting could not have been better. Not only does screen newcomer Grace Vanderwaal embody Stargirl with all her wondrous quirks, Graham Verchere as the shy boy that buries his individuality is heartbreaking and realistically awkward. There is not one false note between the two of them.
But, I am getting ahead of myself not relating the story because I am so excited for people to experience this film. Very few movies come to mind that I find so incredibly endearing, that tug at my heart because what is presented on screen is so realistic it hurts the soul, but for a moment, and you find yourself transported into their world: Summer of ’42, The Man in the Moon, Stand By Me, Eighth Grade. Stargirl now ranks among my favorites of these coming-of-age films.
A very young Leo deals with his father’s untimely passing. This has a profound affect on him, and what he remembers best about his father is his silliness, fun, and his ties. His mother gives him his father’s porcupine tie and Leo wears it everywhere; playing, eating, and even attending school. But, when mom moves them to a small town in Arizona to start a new life, Leo is shunned for being different in his new school and the unthinkable happens to his father’s tie. At that point, Leo decides to disappear into the fabric of normalcy in his school. But, every year on his birthday something special happens, a present ends up on his doorstep, a unique tie.
Leo’s life takes a drastic change when he meets the new girl in school who sticks out like a beacon of strangeness. She’s flamboyant with her appearance, enjoys helping others, and plays the ukulele at any given time. Oh, and she’s cute as hell. She is every bit as wonderfully bizarre as her name, “Stargirl.”
Leo falls hard. But, he’s very awkward and has no idea how to approach her. After a few missteps, Stargirl eases him into introductions. Her eccentricity eventually becomes popular when she cheers the school’s losing football team with an impromptu rousing song that ends up leading them to their very first victory.
This once sheltered, schooled at home girl slowly becomes the most popular kid in school and Leo finds his work turned upside down trying to figure her out. Their relationship plays out so realistically that we cannot help but anticipate the inevitable hurt that comes with such a whirlwind romance. But, this is no ordinary romantic story. Spinelli’s tale is both wondrous, cautionary, and down-to-earth with an eye-opening message.
The entire cast feels so real with the standouts being Darby Stanchfield, Giancarlo Esposito, and the two young stars. Stanchfield is both earthy and awkward as the mother of a teen boy going through so many struggles. The small amount of time she has on screen is absolutely precious. While Esposito from Breaking Bad fame switches off the bad guy persona and delivers a genuinely touching and funny performance as Archie, the owner of a local paleontologist camp who is kind of like a mentor/father figure to Leo.
Verchere and Vanderwaal have a unique chemistry. You feel as if they’re not just hitting their marks, but actually falling in love. Every gesture on their part is so nuanced that it can’t help but bring back sweet innocent memories of one’s youth that could easily leave you choked up.
It’s surprising that the two are so good and far from being seasoned professionals, you’d never guess that watching them. Verchere has only twenty credits to his name in mostly TV movies and spots in a couple of series while Vanderwaal makes a stunning debut as an actress. The young lady has star power written all over her. Her timing could not help but remind me of a very young Ruth Gordon from Harold and Maude.
The only downside to all of this, Stargirl is a Disney+ exclusive. One can only hope that the House of Mouse will eventually make the film available on physical medium (DVD, Blu-ray or 4K) to reach a wider audience through either Redbox, Amazon or the general public to purchase. For now, Disney+ not only has the advantage of having the Marvel and Star Wars franchises available to those who wish to make a solid investment into their streaming service, but they are offering solid entertainment with plenty of heart on the heels of Stargirl.
Directed by: Julia Hart
Release Date: March 13, 2020
Run Time: 107 Minutes
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios