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For being a relatively new streaming service, Disney+ has had a strong line up of original productions out of the gate. Only one of the films has been based on a previously existing Disney IP, and while they haven't all been "must watch" films, each has had its own sort of charm that has made it worthy of one's time, at the very least. The latest addition to the Disney+ Original Movie catalog is Julia Hart's Stargirl, which, like its predecessors, isn't without its charms, but it's also evidence said charm might be starting to wear a little thin.
Based on the novel by Jerry Spinelli of the same name, Stargirl tells the story of the title character, Stargirl Caraway (America's Got Talent winner Grace VanderWaal, in her acting debut), except not really. Stargirl is actually the story of Leo, the high school boy who meets Stargirl and has his life drastically changed by her appearance in it. Leo (Graham Verchere) is a high school kid who once had a streak of the unorthodox running through him as a kid, but after having it literally beaten out of him by bullies in elementary school he has chosen to conform.
Then he meets Stargirl. The formerly home-schooled teen dresses somewhat outlandishly and has no problem drawing attention to herself, usually via impromptu ukulele performances in the cafeteria or on the football field. Despite their differences, the teens seem to have an instant connection, obvious to both of them. Stargirl's uniqueness actually makes her incredibly popular at school, at least at first, and she helps Leo see the world from a new point of view.
Stargirl isn't that manic, but she's no less a pixie dream girl.
Stargirl isn't about Stargirl, but about how Stargirl changes and improves the life of her boyfriend. It's a trope so common in film it has its own name – the "manic pixie dreamgirl" – and while Stargirl as a character certainly has some differences from the versions we're used to seeing, they're minor tweaks at best. Her purpose in the story is ultimately no different.
Falling victim to a cliche might not be the end of the world if Stargirl did anything particularly new or noteworthy with it, but the great irony of the film is that a story that wants to champion individuality is a story that most of us have seen before. The stuffy guy falls for the strange girl and begins to embrace the strangeness.
This gives Leo a character arc, a predictable one, but an arc, nonetheless. The same can't be said for Stargirl herself. We see bits and pieces of who Stargirl is, but since the film never breaks from Leo's point-of-view none of it ever goes anywhere. We know Stargirl has friendships other than Leo's, but we never get to know those characters, as they just hang out on the periphery. Stargirl talks about her mother, and we meet her briefly, but we never understand that relationship either. Stargirl has conflicts of her own she must deal with, but since we never see them from her perspective their resolutions are unsatisfying.
Despite the tropes, Stargirl's romance is genuine and heartfelt.
As a simple teen romance, Stargirl works well enough. The leads are charismatic and there is chemistry. They're both actual teenagers, rather than mid-twentysomethings playing kids, and neither of the teens is trying to act older than they are. It's honestly rare that a movie about teenagers truly feels like you're watching teenagers in all their awkward and confused glory, but Stargirl feels real.
Perhaps the best thing to be said about Stargirl is that it by keeping things simple it lets its actors act. Director Julia Hart clearly knows how to handle the young cast. Stargirl is the simplest of Disney+'s movies so far. There are no fantasy elements; there is no great adventure; and there are no CGI animals. It really is just a movie about teenagers being teenagers. This isn't a John Hughes movie where everything you see makes it clear you're watching a Hollywood production. The film's setting of Mica, Arizona (with New Mexico standing in) is supposed to be a place where nothing ever happens, and everything about the production backs that up.
Grace VanderWaal's musical talents shine.
Those looking for a dose of DIsney magic in their movie won't be entirely left out at sea. Stargirl is a musician and so is Grace Vanderwaal. The story gives Stargirl several opportunities to perform in musical numbers that sometimes feel like they were filmed more like music videos, with Vanderwall performing to the camera rather than the audience of the film. It's here where VanderWaal shines. Her charm and screen presence are undeniable. It makes it that much more unfortunate she wasn't given more to do in the rest of the movie.
Stargirl is a movie that I wanted to like more than I did. Such a simple character drama isn't the sort of thing Disney does much of anymore, and it's actually what the studio should be doing on their streaming service. Stargirl isn't bad; it's just lacking in any feeling of creativity due to its strict adherence to a tired formula. It holds everything else back. Stargirl the character may be somebody special, but Stargirl the movie just isn't.