I was in 6th grade when my teacher, Mrs. Coffin, sat us down for part of each day as she read Jerry Spinelli’s Stargirl aloud. It was a strange book full of both whimsical nonconformity and disturbing obsession. I liked it quite a bit and always held onto the hope that I’d see a decent film version one day. When that adaptation finally landed in March of this year I felt a trifle put off by it, afraid it just wouldn’t measure up.
Stargirl tells the story of Leo Borlock (Graham Verchere), a young boy whose father died when he was 9 years old. The guy was apparently quirky enough for his favorite accessory to be a broad porcupine tie. Leo wears it every day until some bullies at his new school knock him down and take scissors to it. This leads the boy to hide anything unique or different about himself, stuffing it away in his closet. Years later he meets a girl in high school, Susan “Stargirl” Caraway (Grace VanderWaal), and is charmed by her like everyone else in the school. She’s weird, she’s eclectic, she’s got this neat ukulele, and everything about her is unusual. But things that go up must come down, and her inevitable fall from grace puts their romantic entanglement in danger as Leo tries to decide between his peers and his new girlfriend.
This isn’t a bad movie. It sounds like more of a cliche than it is, but nothing stands out as anything but than adorably twee. Stargirl is a much different character than she was in Spinelli’s original vision, the literary character draping herself in everything from Victorian dresses to flapper girl designs and every odd thing in between. Disney has opted for a sweet and charming dork that is quite kind and earnest. There’s a bit of Wachowski sincerity to her, with everything she does achingly open. She sings to people on their birthdays, performs silly antics with the cheerleading squad that motivates the normally awful football team, and she carries perhaps the world’s cutest rat in her pocket (the damned thing is named “Cinnamon” and it is ADORABLE). She’s full of so many different small things that make her different, but none of it would every truly be enough for an entire school to find her weird or off-putting.
That isn’t to say this isn’t a tenuously charming little bit of fluff. Disney’s attempt at a jukebox indie film is an interesting experiment, one that gives us cutesy renditions of hit songs as Stargirl performs on her ukulele for crowds of people for no reason other than she finds it a way to give back to the school. Why? She’s just that openly motivated to spread positivity to everyone around her.
I’m not kidding, this is that kind of film. It’s the equivalent of a candy binge; nicely cloying on the way down and later I sort of regret my actions. Stargirl felt like that to me, on the edge of inducing a diabetic coma as I indulged in how sweet it was and later reflecting on just how far it was from the expectations laid down by Spinelli’s novel.
This is going to do extremely well as a kindhearted film aimed to teach modern American youth about individuality, being kind to your peers, and following attraction to people outside the norm down the rabbit hole. It wasn’t for me, but I do hope it reaches those half my age and younger as they decide who they are going to be. There’s gold to mine here, it’s just not the currency I was hoping to glean for it.