Disney’s ‘Stargirl’ misses the mark

Directed by Julia Hart (“Fast Colour”), “Stargirl” is the latest young adult novel being adapted to the screen. Streaming on Disney+, the new movie follows Leo Borlock (Graham Verchere) who becomes infatuated with Stargirl (Grace VanderWaal), a quirky girl who performs in their high school band. // Photo courtesy of Disney

Our Take: 2/5 Stars

On March 13, the film adaptation of young adult novel “Stargirl” by Jerry Spinelli debuted on the Disney+ streaming service. The New York Times Bestseller published in 2000 is known for its charming title character, Stargirl, and her immensely positive impact on the small town of Mica, Arizona. Her story is told through the protagonist, Leo, who is a boring sixteen year old boy completely entranced by Stargirl’s weird ways. Leo inevitably falls head over heels for the quirky girl. Disney+ attempts to capture this heartwarming, inspiring tale in film form for its subscribers. 

The film follows the basic outline of the novel, starting with Leo’s (Graham Verchere, “Fargo”) tragic backstory. After the untimely death of his father, Leo begins to wear his father’s tacky porcupine necktie everywhere he goes. It immediately makes him stand out and makes him a target for harassment in the small town, teaching him that “If [he] was going to survive, [he] was going to have to be like everyone else. … [he] was going to disappear.” 

The message of the movie is clear: it is dangerous to stand out from the crowd. Be it because of your porcupine necktie or your ukulele, being noticed as an adolescent is abhorrent. Being noticed puts a target on your back for discrimination and bullying, so, like everyone else in Mica, Leo tries to blend in. The depiction of the small town high school is accurate to life — the marching band only has a handful of members and the football stadium is empty save for the players’ parents. The color palette of the school and even the little desert town is monotone sepia.

Enter Stargirl Caraway (Grace Vanderwaal, “America’s Got Talent”), the new quirky girl in town. She is unapologetically unique. She wears brightly colored outfits and wields a ukulele, ready to sing her heart out at a moment’s notice. She is the definition of “manic pixie dream girl,” born before the trope even existed. Stargirl is like a beam of light in a dark night, like technicolor to an old, outdated film. Director Julia Hart (“Fast Colour”) puts Stargirl at the center of attention, right where she wants to be, and the audience watches as the rest of the town begins to follow Stargirl’s lead. 

Verchere’s performance is amazing; he acutely depicts the gripping feeling of first love and the melancholy of being outshined by a friend. Vanderwaal’s performance, on the other hand, seems to rely too much on the melancholy, whereas her character’s charm lies in her kinship to other whimsical, naive characters like Luna Lovegood. Without this naiveté, Stargirl does not grow. She is already knowledgeable and understanding of the cruel, judgemental world around her, and her fleeting presence is an intentional challenge to the status quo instead of a magical entrance and exit by an ephemeral being. 

At her core, Stargirl is magic. “Since she got here, things have been different,” comments Leo at one point. Stargirl summons rain, summons success, summons joy to this dark place.

Looking back on the story now after the rise and fall of the “manic pixie dream girl” trope, audiences cannot help but cringe at Stagirl’s outlandish outfits and confident outbursts. At times, her exuberant personality is painful to watch. The audience fears the inevitable ending to her story: Stargirl finally faces the repercussions of being “different” and becomes a pariah. As any person who has attended high school knows, navigating social circles as a teen is extremely difficult. Leo is right — people change their minds and can turn on you quickly. One minute Stargirl is the lucky charm of the football team, the next she is being interrogated on the student-run television program “Hot Seat,” accused of being carefless, selfish and ignorant. 

Leo asks her “Why can’t you just be more like everybody else?” He wants to protect her, but he also wants to protect himself. Stargirl has paved her own path, and at the end is the possibility of being an outsider for the rest of her life. Our protagonist Leo does not dare follow the same road; he seeks normalcy, and Stargirl loses her magic touch. The most disappointing part of the narrative, though there is a lesson to be learned from it, is her action of changing herself to fit societal standards. She gets an iPhone, she dresses in all neutral colors, she parts her hair down the middle, and she takes selfies, sacrificing what’s most important to her: her identity. 

If you examine the narrative, Stargirl herself does not seem to have much agency. She is a plot device for a male character’s growth. She changes from flamboyant to boring and back to flamboyant only to prove to the small-minded small town of Mica that it is okay to be different. But where this movie misses the mark is who Stargirl truly is. Because viewers are following Leo, they do not get to really dive into Stargirl’s incredibly interesting character. The same problems are present in the novel version of this story. 

Despite the weak female lead, why does this story resonate with young women? Perhaps because women are conditioned to be perceived only to some ends, and when they break out of that, it feels as though they have more independence. Women’s choices allow them to be perceived how they want to be, instead of being defined by others expectations. Stargirl is not “not like those other girls,” she is just like other girls. She is every girl: she is special, loving, beautiful, interesting and unique. Stargirl learns from her mistakes, grows and changes, tries to be a better person. Stargirl is a metaphor for all young women, a lesson that it’s okay to be unique no matter the consequences, that her fire should never go out no matter who tries to toss water on her. 

Is it possible for a film to hit home too much? The embarrassment of teenagedom coupled with the heavy-handed message about identity was too much to handle. Though the story still makes an important statement, the film was unable to meet audiences’ expectations. “Stargirl” was a missed opportunity to refocus the narrative on this wondrous and inspiring character, and without a team with proper acting chops, narrative changes and the emotional elements to some of the more “cringe-worthy” elements, “Stargirl” falls slightly short from being as good as the award-winning book.