Stargirl, based off the best selling book by author Jerry Spinelli, starts by welcoming you to its world by admitting its flaws. Bleak skies with grey tinted clouds and empty streets accompany an opening monologue that plays to the notion of conforming, of hiding away from not only people but the creativity that socialising often brings. There is a beauty in where Stargirl is headed, and director Julia Hart elegantly sets it up, hidden within her dour landscapes and voiceless classrooms. When it finally comes time to inject some colour into this world, Stargirl gets lost in the poetry of it all.
Telling the story of 16-year-old Leo (Graham Verchere), a boy who thinks the way to fit in in his small town of Mica is to hide. Living with his mother and attempting to move on from the death of his father he finds himself uprooted from his rut by new girl Stargirl (Grace Vanderwaal), who not only forces him out of his sheltered existence but begins to change the school around her and the town that had, until this point, hidden from view, just like Leo.
What might at first feel like a hammer, nailing a message into your skull without relenting slowly grows into a powerful yet expected story of understanding and finding the unique in each and every one of us. Despite being Vanderwaal’s acting debut, after surprising audiences on America’s Got Talent in 2016 and releasing her debut album in 2017, her musical talents are both utilised and ignored, as Hart gives her much of the dramatic heavy lifting. Using the striking yet desolate locales of New Mexico to add a notion of missing personality, Hart’s story feels intimate despite a first-half that is weightless.
Although this is a love story about two people with vastly different approaches to life it works best when it frames itself through Leo’s eyes. Hart never successfully connects to the relentless optimism of Stargirl, but Leo’s cynicism seems natural and rooted in relatable fears. Because of this, the opening half feels outlandish, unbelievable as it feels more enamoured by the often overly ephemeral nature of its titular character, a ukelele carrying, singing ray of sunshine, more mystery than person. The bright and lively actions and clothing of Stargirl and the foreign mindset plays more cutesy than it should, an infectious Disney magic that comes from a perspective, not in line with our own.
Filled with catchy, youthful musical interludes that feel like music videos specifically designed for Leo, takes advantage of Vanderwaal’s musical fame but it is in her moments of honesty that she makes the most of the role. A mid-film speech proves not only a turning point for her character but the film in general as it flips from a charming and light story of first love to real, coming of age tale, one more interested in questioning one’s identity than pandering to an oftentimes forgettable relationship. This moment is handled with grace by Vanderwaal but it is the subtle writing here, by Hart, Kristin Hahn and Jordan Horowitz that ensures the film doesn’t overplay the moment.
The formulaic monkey wrench in Stargirl and Leo’s burgeoning relationship might well be expected but it meshes the two sides of a conflicting story and thanks to two performances, by Verchere and Vanderwaal, the film opens up, embracing the best of both worlds, an unwavering cynicism but also the notion that you can hope for something better at the same time. While Hart shoehorns in a discussion of Leo’s grief it pays off thanks to the addition of Darby Stanchfield as Leo’s mother Gloria who uses her limited screentime to great effect, making an oft-ignored plot-point vital in tying Leo’s messy story about self-doubt together.
Aimed at those who don’t know who they are and what they want, this isn’t your conventional Disney picture, one of brave heroines and brazen love interests. Fittingly so, the film that doesn’t match the tried and tested Mickey Mouse brand is the one about living up to your own idea of who you are, no matter what others might try and shrink you into becoming. It’s just a shame it takes most of the film for the real story to begin.