Disney+’s adaptation of the Jerry Spinelli novel is tooth-achingly twee.
Disney+’s latest original film Stargirl is all about the in-between. It’s about being between high school and college, childhood and new adulthood. It’s between twee and sour, and — most importantly — between being a good or bad movie.
Based on the Jerry Spinelli novel, Stargirl follows Leo (Graham Verchere), a young nobody, who plays in marching band for a school full of nobodies. He lives with his widowed mother (Darby Stanchfield), misses his old life, and collects porcupine ties in memory of his departed father.
Leo isn’t really bullied. He isn’t really popular. He and his demonstrably intersectional group misfit friends run a semi-okay chat show that the school doesn’t care much about. His life is just — fine.
We open on a rather startling greyscale palette for a Disney Original Movie, because his life isn’t really bad, it just used to be sunnier. The film as a whole isn’t really bad either, but The Disney (Channel) Original Movie has seen brighter days. It’s just — fine.
Then someone new comes to the school. “Have you seen her?” the kids at school whisper to Leo as he passes by. The new girl is a magical unicorn heard of in stories but only seen by a chosen few. Enter Stargirl (Grace VanderWaal) and her ukelele. Her ukelele.
Dressed as if she raided the costume closet for a shelved Wes Anderson adaptation of Rainbow Brite, Stargirl is qwerky and free-spirited. She’s totally unique! She’s relentlessly optimistic. She pays people’s parking meters. She returns bikes to kids who’ve lost them. If you’ve been missing the manic pixie dream girl trope, here’s your chance to remember why it’s been gone and why maybe Garden State is actually only just — fine.
She sings her cheeky songs on that fucking ukelele in the warm salmon-colored Ingrid Regina Michaelson Spektor voice we’ve heard time and time again during Americal Idol auditions. Her magical strawberry vanilla stylings change the hearts of everyone at the school, especially Leo’s. Her rousing(?)ukelele(?)number(?) about being “true to your school” rallies the Bull Frogs to their first-ever football victory. America!
She becomes Leo’s first love. This is not a spoiler.
True to life in high school, a lot of the drama of Stargirl is unnecessary. Most of the conflicts are resolved into non-issues. Even the shocking reveal that Stargirl’s actions have consequences ultimately goes nowhere. And it’s too bad because this is the most interesting part of the movie.
Here we have a provocative moment from another movie that collides into the middle of an otherwise quotidian story. It makes us (us adults that is?) question if Stargirl’s motives might be solipsistic if maybe she’s too reckless to see the big picture. All manic pixie dream girl tales have this peek behind the curtain to the limits of such boundless quirk. But a good tale matures the character by helping her accept her own humanity and the breading pair move forward together as new, supposedly “better,” people.
True to life in high school, a lot of the drama of Stargirl is unnecessary.
The movie is going to try and sell you on its music. The original songs run from clever to cloying. But, if you’re a critical fan of music you won’t enjoy Leo’s argument for why music lyrics don’t matter, nor are you likely to enjoy the Kidz Bop cover of The Car’s “Just What I Needed.”
For a movie so concerned with being more than just fine, of living life outside of the middle, that’s exactly where it ends up. While there may be some young girls inspired by Stargirl, the film is just another example of how women are only needed to enhance the lives of men and institutions. To be truly themselves, they have to go elsewhere. Despite the happy tone at the end of the film, that’s actually quite tragic. Sometimes “just fine” has collateral victims.
Despite the efforts of director Julia Hart (Fast Color) to amp up the proceedings, Stargirl is a passible First Love Story that doesn’t really seek to challenge anyone or anything, except maybe one’s tolerance for teen twee. If the choices are specific enough, one can overcome any amount of twerk. But nothing twinkles in Stargirl. If anything seems to shimmer, it’s a light from a trope that went out of cultural favor a long time ago.
Stargirl is currently available on Disney+.