source: Disney+

Disney+ was never going to fail as a streaming service, with its massive catalogue of movies and TV shows sure to keep subscribers locked in for rewatches of Marvel, Pixar, Star Wars, and childhood classics. Their new content, though, was a bit of a mystery, and as only its fifth original feature, Stargirl comes in with more than a few question marks.

Being honest, I haven’t seen the previous four originals, but I’ve followed co-writer/director Julia Hart from square one (literally, I saw her promoting her first feature as a screenwriter, The Keeping Room, at TIFF). Every project she’s done has been impressive, showing a knack for digging deep within familiar genres.

That, more than anything else, is what drew me to Stargirl, which from the outside looked like a Disney Channel Original Movie that’s been transplanted to their new streaming service. I wondered whether it was going to be blatantly (and cheaply) made for kids or whether there would be something for adults to latch on to, particularly with Hart there to twist something new out of old standards.

The answer is somewhere in between, but with a definite leaning towards Disney Channel aesthetics. I’m not sure how much money was thrown at this project, but it was clearly limited, what with the no-name stars and small scale of the crowd scenes. Not that it was made for nothing, but the shortcuts in scene setups and camera movements are noticeable.

Then again, that could be Hart’s ability to mimic styles, as this adaptation of a popular YA novel seems to be aimed at kids or /nostalgic adults who grew up on those TV movies.

What’s missing is Hart’s usual elevation, as Stargirl fits the teen boy falling in love with a quirky girl story beat for beat. Where’s that twist, like the deep melancholy of Miss Stevens or the wondrous flashes of superpowers in Fast Color? It almost gets there, ending on a point that is slightly darker than your average feel-good teen romance, but even that feels softened.

And there’s another problem lurking in the background of this project: its manic pixie dream girl. We don’t see this character type as much anymore, but anyone who lived through its peak ten or fifteen years ago will immediately recognize the titular Stargirl (Grace VanderWaal) as a textbook definition. She strolls into Leo’s (Graham Verchere) life with her bright clothing and plucky personality strumming a song on her ukulele, and you just know that she will be the spark plug to his mechanical life.

Turns out she’s the spark plug for the entire school, lifting their sports teams to victory and filling up their previously empty trophy case. It’s such a ridiculous exaggeration of the trope that it would be charming if it was examined at all, but nope, she only exists to be that girl. 

At this point, the problems with the manic pixie dream girl has been hashed out to exhaustion, especially in the way it sidelines women and strips them of their own agency, but not so when the book of the same name on which Stargirl is based was released. Published in 2000, years before Nathan Rabin coined the term in his review of Elizabethtown, it was perhaps easier to let such a blatant girl makes a guy’s life better narrative play without question. Now you can’t let that slide, and Hart and her co-writer’s didn’t update the material enough to avoid making it feel uncomfortably like something from the 2000s.

All that being said, Stargirl could have been straight up annoying, but VanderWaal wrestles her into some level of believability. This is pushing against the film itself, which frames her as some sort of magical being, but in this case it’s VanderWaal with the correct instincts. And she has decent chemistry with Verchere, who plays his average teen with all the averageness he deserves. They are pleasant together, not enough to break the film out of its tired formula, but enough to put it on wheels.

That’s the thing: Stargirl isn’t outright bad. The way Hart sets up shots and makes the whole thing churn along does give it a nostalgic feel that’ll remind you of the movies that were produced for you in childhood. It goes down easy, particularly if you put it on in the background while you take care of your adult chores. But if you want something that will capture your full attention without making you slightly uncomfortable, look elsewhere.

Author: Emily Wheeler

Member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. Rotten Tomatoes certified critic. Movie omnivore.

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