Stargirl Parent Guide
After his father’s death, Leo Borlock (Graham Verchere) and his mom (Darby Stanchfield) move to Mica, Arizona for a fresh start. Following a traumatic bullying incident, Leo decides that it is easier to blend in with the crowd and not draw any attention to himself. On his sixteenth birthday he meets Stargirl Caraway (Grace VanderWaal), a quirky girl who is unapologetically herself. As they get to know each other, Leo learns what it means to be yourself and not care what other people think of you.
Stargirl is based on a bestselling novel of the same name by Jerry Spinelli published in 2000. I have not personally read it, but I do remember it being popular when I was in elementary school, which shows how long ago that was. Though the movie adaptation does try to modernize in some ways, it still feels its age. I doubt that today’s teens will be able to relate fully to the characters and situations, as high school has changed dramatically in the last two decades. Much of the plot is unrealistic and the teenage characters make choices and interact in ways that don’t feel authentic.
One element that has really not aged well is the character Stargirl. She is the epitome of the manic pixie dream girl. Everything she does and says is quirky but also aloof. She is always the wisest person in the room, and acts like the fact that she stands out makes her better than everyone else. Her only purpose in the story is to provide character development for Leo and then disappear. There is no hint at her internal life or struggles; she is only what Leo needs her to be, which is perfectly summed up in the song Leo sings at the climax, a cover of “Just What I Needed” by The Cars, which prominently features the lyrics, “I guess you’re just what I needed”.
Despite these complaints, it’s worth noting that the film’s overall theme is figuring out who you are and learning to be ok with standing out from the crowd - which is a message we’re all happy to share with young people. Seeing actual teenagers play teens is also refreshing, instead of the 20-somethings who are often cast in these roles. The musical elements are well done, especially Grace VanderWaal’s singing and ukulele playing.
Overall, Stargirl is a sweet, family-friendly coming of age story, though it does show its age in the depictions of teenagers and especially in its main female lead. It might not shine as brightly as it could, but it does manage the occasional twinkle.
Stargirl is currently streaming on Disney+.Directed by Julia Hart. Starring Darby Stanchfield, Grace VanderWaal, Gincarlo Esposito. Running time: 107 minutes. Updated May 14, 2020
Savannah Lee has a Bachelor of Arts in English as well as a certificate in Early Childhood Education. She enjoys movies, nonfiction books, and travel and is a staunch proponent of the Oxford comma.
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Stargirl's feel-good story hits familiar coming-of-age beats, but self-assured performances and an earnest mission worn proudly make it a tune worth listening to.Read critic reviews
An unassuming high school student finds himself inexplicably drawn to the free-spirited new girl whose unconventional ways change how they see themselves and each other.
Cast & Crew
‘Stargirl’: Film Review
Maybe it’s the fault of “The Fault in Our Stars” that we assume, in the flourishing modern era of the young-adult genre, that one of the story’s romantic leads has to die in order to advance the dramatic stakes. Fortunately, that’s not the case with director Julia Hart’s “Stargirl.” Adapted by Hart, Kristin Hahn and Jordan Horowitz from Jerry Spinelli’s novel of the same name, this tale of two teens falling in love and struggling to find balance in their polar opposite identities may prove difficult viewing for cynics or those with a low tolerance for the overtly saccharine. While it suffers from a rocky beginning with burdensome amounts of kook and quirk, the unfolding spell it subtly casts holds profundity and wisdom.
Sixteen-year-old Leo Borlock (Graham Verchere) is about to realize there are no perks of being a wallflower. Since the death of his father and a traumatic bullying incident, he’s felt that the key to surviving adolescence is fitting in without disrupting the norm. That means no standing out by showing his true self — a person who loves dinosaurs, sports, kooky porcupine-themed ties, and the music of the Cars. Instead, he keeps his head down, gets decent grades, plays in the marching band and hides on the A/V squad with a few pals. His quiet adoptive hometown of Mica, Ariz., mirrors this philosophy, barely noticed by the world at large. The metaphorical connotation of their high school mascot — a mud frog, a creature who lies in wait until awoken by a drastic change — also reflects both Leo and the town’s journey once the titular character descends on the first day of school.
With her irrepressible personality, eccentric clothing and love of the ukulele, former home-schooler Stargirl Caraway (Grace VanderWaal) stands out in a sea of sameness. She makes this instantly known on her first day of class with her hippie-inspired name and colorful, ’90s-influenced garb, but also during lunch when she singles Leo out in the cafeteria to sing him “Happy Birthday.” Later, she crashes the football game to augment the cheerleading squad’s efforts with her acoustic cover of the Beach Boys’ “Be True To Your School.” While all these acts sound like social suicide — and might be seen as such in any other film — the pendulum swings in the opposite direction, garnering respect and popularity from classmates and townsfolk, as well as further attention from Leo, who’s seriously crushing on her.
Hart and her collaborators adeptly utilize the textural language of cinema to heighten and underline thematic ties. Composer Rob Simonsen assigns instrumental representations to the two leads in his score: an acoustic guitar for Stargirl and warm synth for Leo. As Stargirl and Leo awkwardly converse, the score mirrors their interplay with a call and response-style arrangement. When the pair begin their romantic relationship, and her musical performances integrate with the band and cheer squad’s, those instruments conjoin in a symphony.
Gae Buckley’s production design, Natalie O’Brien’s costume design and Bryce Fortner’s cinematography all widen their scope as the student body accepts Stargirl as their good luck charm. Likewise, the dull, drab color palette of their clothing transforms into vibrant, saturated tones. Editors Tracey Wadmore-Smith and Shayar Bhansali craft montages with a buoyant sense of energy and romantic verve, especially valuable in sequences where Leo and Stargirl are falling in love (set to Big Star’s masterful ode to teenage romance, “Thirteen”).
In the pantheon of Disney’s teen movies, Hart and company’s adaptation earns strong marks for its realistic portrayal of their caste society — or, at least, a sanitized version of it. Though there are delineations between the popular kids and those who aren’t, traditional archetypes like the brain, athlete, princess, rebel, and outcast have either evolved or been excised to reflect a more modern sensibility. There is blessedly no troupe of mean girls or jocks mocking, ridiculing, or conspiring against Stargirl. And the outcasts aren’t exactly the rebellious cads or pocket-protector nerds of their juvenile societal order. This dynamic ecosystem suggests the payoff for what John Hughes fought to shatter in “The Breakfast Club.”
Greater yet, one of the best things about this adaptation is its deconstruction of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. The film isn’t so much concerned about subverting it, instead examining its facets and offering a healthy alternative. The narrative’s centralized conflict isn’t solely about the inevitable loss of Stargirl’s newfound popularity, though there is some understated commentary there. That element provides the catalyst for introspection, both impacting her personal growth and helping Leo embrace his own idiosyncrasies. She experiments with finding a better balance between flamboyance and normalcy, which is the film’s prevailing sentiment. Plus, it blessedly avoids calling upon a dude to come to the rescue and return the shine to Stargirl’s tarnished name. They give her the ability to exercise her own agency.
VanderWaal, a singer-songwriter making her film debut, shows audacious promise with her work. She ropes us into the mystery of her character reveal with heaping amounts of magnetism and grounded authenticity. It’s no surprise that the music-driven scenes really showcase her power, like the Taylor Swift-inspired musical vignettes or mini-music videos à la “Rocky IV” that will ingeniously push soundtrack purchases. She and Verchere, who’s a genuinely sweet cross between Jessie Eisenberg and Michael Cera sharing the physicality and vocal tonalities of each, are a remarkable pairing.
The end credits coda brings Hart’s stirring vision into sharp focus. VanderWaal’s original song “Today and Tomorrow” shifts from a produced studio version over the credits to a scene with her singing live outdoors at sundown, serenading Verchere. It’s a tender moment, increased by the intimacy of the pair and the simplicity of the staging, leaving us with a gentle feeling of grace.
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Stargirl's messages are positive ones for tween viewers, who will be drawn in thanks to the popularity of the book and the novelty of the film debut of VanderWaal. So, first things first: the young star gives a charming performance and proves she can act as well as sing. Co-star Verchere and a diverse supporting cast are equally charming. Fans of VanderWaal or the book likely won't be too put off by significant changes to the original story, the film's uneven pace, or some corny magical undertones.
Stargirl could be called the High School Musical of misfits and underdogs. But considering the majority of real-life teenagers are probably a lot more like Leo, Kevin, and even Stargirl than Troy, Sharpay, and the HSM gang, the film may actually be the more representative high school movie. There's no shortage of genre staples, including awkward encounters at school, football games, and the obligatory school dance. Stargirl falls into a growing body of films, like the HSM series, that show teens to be kinder, more genuine, and more accepting than the '80s screen teens of their parents' generation in, say, The Breakfast Club or Footloose. And while their typical teen identity issues are magnified in the age of social media, a minor theme in Stargirl, they're shown here to also benefit from healthier relationships with their parents. That, and the '80s musical references, make the film an okay watch for the whole family.
Rating stargirl movie
‘Stargirl’ Review: A Familiar but Charming Romance
A strange magic seems to follow Stargirl; the football team starts winning games, the marching band starts playing in tune and Leo starts to fall in love. (She also has a crate of very good vinyl, which is magical to a certain segment of viewers.)
“Stargirl” was published twenty years ago, and its age occasionally shows in this adaptation; some of the story beats and character qualities (particularly those of the rather precious title character) have congealed into cliché. But Hart (who wrote the screenplay with Kristin Hahn and Jordan Horowitz) is such an enchanting filmmaker, her storytelling style so warm and welcoming, that those concerns fade — particularly in the picture’s second half, as her characters’ interactions and motivations become more complex.
When his classmates inevitably turn on Stargirl, Leo pleads, “Why can’t you just be more like everyone else?” She gives it her best, but to no avail, and here is where the film’s message becomes clear: nothing is more important than being one’s true self. That lesson never loses its value, or its timeliness.
Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 44 minutes.
But this can be very frustrating cinematically, if not handled well. VanderWaal is a compelling figure in her YouTube videos and in any clips you might find of her singing live. She really is playing that ukulele! But she's opaque to the extreme here, and doesn't ignite the character at all. She doesn't have the skill as an actress to give us a sense that Stargirl has an inner life. When she jumps around on the football field, it seems incomprehensible that this magical dreamy girl would get so into it. She hasn't helped us make sense of her. During the cheers, she sings right at the camera, like it's an "America's Got Talent" audition. This was clearly a specific choice, but stopping the film in its tracks for what is essentially a music video doesn't help us find an entryway into the story, or into her.
Verchere plays even more of a cipher. Leo's "arc" doesn't make much sense: he falls in love with her eccentricity but then at a random point wants her to "be normal." (In the book, this change-up makes much more sense, as does the moment when the school turns on her, shunning her. This is handled in a sloppy way here, so much so that we aren’t even sure what happened at first.) Giancarlo Esposito adds some gravitas as a guy who lives out in the desert, digging up dinosaur bones, always ready to talk to the kids who wander out there to visit him. He exists to counsel Leo.
Director Julia Hart has a great feel for landscapes, for light. The look of "Stargirl" has a lot in common with the look of Hart's "Fast Color": similar sweeps of desert landscapes, romantic twilight skies, a sense of space beyond the frame. So far, my favorite of Hart's films remains the undersung "Miss Stevens" (2016), starring Lily Rabe as a drama teacher chaperoning a Drama Club trip (one of the students is Timothée Chalamet). Miss Stevens could have been conceived as "quirky" or a "kook," but in Rabe's hands, she is human, with all the flaws and mistakes that that implies. In "Stargirl" Hart brings her sensibility to bear, and the film looks wonderful. Hart wrote both "Miss Stevens" and "Fast Color" with her husband Jordan Horowitz. In "Stargirl," she deals with extant material for the first time, and she does what she can with it, but it's not enough.
The best thing about "Stargirl" is that Big Star's yearning ode to adolescence "Thirteen" is played in its entirety not once, but twice. If "Stargirl" introduces a new generation to the wonder that is Big Star, it will have done more than enough.
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