Truth be told (which I know I must do, especially after last week’s review), I had no real intention to review Stargirl.
My only interest in the film was that it starred former America’s Got Talent winner Grace Vanderwaal, who I admit to being a fan of a few of her songs. Add in the fact that this is the 16-year old’s first film and it is safe to say that I had cause for alarm.
All these worries (and more) only added to my surprise at how much I was enthralled by the film. This being one of the first original Disney Plus films I have seen (I know, I am late to the party on that), I can only compare it to Disney Channel Films (High School Musical, etc). On that basis, this is a big step forward.
Based off of the 2000 book of the same name by Jerry Spinelli, the titular character (Vanderwaal) is not the main protagonist of the film. That goes to Leo Borlock (Graham Verchere), a junior who lives with his mom (Darby Stanchfield) in one of the smallest, low-key towns imaginable. He once used to feel good about being more extroverted, even after the death of his father (it’s a Disney movie, so the fact that a parent is dead is expected). He soon learns the dangers of that, and has spent most of his High School life on the down low.
The High School (small enough that I would be shocked if more than 1,000 students were in attendance) is known for never winning a football game or having a trophy of any kind on display. The most exciting thing is when a speech/debate tournament is held, and is normally won by Leo’s best friend Kevin (former Disney Channel star Karan Brar). In short, Leo leads a nice, uneventful life.
This changes with the appearance of Stargirl Caraway. Recently homeschooled, she has been able to convince her (single) mom to let her attend public school. To say that she stands out is a gross understatement. She seems to revel in doing the unexpected, even if in front of a crowd of people at a football game. One look at the ukulele and you know a song will be coming up.
It is clear that Leo becomes enthralled with Stargirl (which is not her actual name, but that is irrelevant for now). Rather than talk to his mom (what teen boy would want to automatically go talk to his mom about the troubles of being a teen?), his main source is Archie (Giancarlo Esposito, most known as Breaking Bad’s Gus Fring), a local archeologist (or something close to it) who also knows Stargirl.
Unlike other live action Disney films made for the youth, Stargirl does not have much of an antagonist. Sure, there are some who get angry with her actions, but not to the point of lunacy. The lack of an over the top antagonist makes the film feel all the more authentic.
Speaking of authenticity, the film has some of the more realistic, thoughtful dialogue I have heard in a Disney film in recent years. Consider one of the first times we get a scene between the two leads.
Stargirl: “Don’t you want the universe to hear you?”
Leo: “I don’t have anything to say.”
Leo: “Being with you is like the most anyone has ever looked at me in my entire life.”
While these may have been quotes from the original source, there is still almost a hidden audacity that the filmmakers have to use lines like these (especially for a Disney flick).
Anyone who has seen any form of film romance knows that chemistry between the actors is one of the most essential ingredients for the film to succeed. Thankfully, the chemistry between Verchere and VanderWaal is not only present but alive. Their chemistry could outdo many I have seen with other actors twice their age. It gave me the warm feels, making my insides like oatmeal.
Parents, the film is PG, though there is no swearing (apart from one that I might have heard). There is kissing, and it should be mentioned that there is one shot of two female teenagers slow dancing (nothing more). I would think preteens and up would be fine.
Note to kids: Let your parents know that this film may give you the same feels that they got when they watched movies in their youth. It will give them the same callback to the age when being yourself was difficult and risky (which is true for adults as well). Be sure to bring up the name John Hughes.
Right after getting the coveted Golden Buzzer from Howie Mandel on AGT, Grace Vanderwaal was told by Simon Cowell that he predicted her to be the next Taylor Swift (Mandel would later predict Grace would be bigger than Swift). Singing wise, both are talented to the point of near unbelief. It is hard to say the same for acting (due to this being Vanderwaal’s first film, and the fact that Taylor Swift’s last acting role was in CATS).
Whether Grace Vanderwaal has a film career ahead of her is yet to be seen, but it is clear she was born to play the role of Stargirl. Quirky, bubbly, carefree, and utterly free spirited, one could argue she was even born playing the role. While the book was written two decades ago, it is a wonder that the movie took its time so Vanderwaal could be in the film.
After all, real things take time.