Monday, March 16, 2020

Thoughtful Direction and Costume Designs Aren't Enough To Fully Save The Frequently Formulaic Stargirl

Stargirl tends to evoke thoughts of other movies rather than its own distinct identity. For one thing, there's no getting around how its central premise heavily utilizes the tired Manic Pixie Dream Girl stereotype. For another, its vision of a High School drama is very much John Green-esque with a pinch of John Hughes and the wannabe-thoughtful dialogue of late-period Cameron Crowe thrown in for good measure. The last decade has seen plenty of unique approaches to teenager-centric cinema across titles like The Spectacular Now, The Edge of Seventeen and Lady Bird, That makes it extra disappointing to see something like Stargirl that just doesn't have much all that much to make it unique despite having some talented people working on it.

Leo Borlock (Graham Verchere) is a teenager living in Tucson, Arizona who has long since learned that the best thing for him to do in his quiet High School is to just blend in. That subdued life of his is thrown into chaos once Stargirl (Grace VanderWaal) shows up. Decked out in these brightly colored outfits and unafraid to just grab her ukelele and belt out a rendition of Happy Birthday at a moment's notice, she's the kind of quirky individual that you don't run into every day. Leo proceeds to become enamored with this unusual girl that ends up becoming the High School's football good luck charm. The world keeps trying to change Stargirl. But it turns out Stargirl (softly chuckles), in her own way, is changing the world.

Stargirl isn't terrible but it sure is predictable. For example, there isn't much to make the supporting characters stand out in one's memory sans one of them being another instance of Disney offering up the bare minimum of LGBTQIA+ representation in their movies. Generically rendered figures like a teacher played by Maximiliano Hernandez or a quasi-mentor figure to Leo Borlock played by Giancarlo Esposito could be taken out of this movie and plopped out into any other High School drama without any problem. Similarly derivative are the vast majority of the character beats, including an early sequence straight out of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 where Leo follows an oblivious Stargirl back to her house. Why are we still making movies that depict male leads stalking female characters and then try to pass that behavior off as being cutesy?

This high level of predictability consistently undercuts Stargirl, you can guess all of its beats (including a laughably obvious ending that wraps things up so nice and tidy) coming a mile away. The screenplay (credited to a trio of writers, including Stargirl's director Julia Hart) also struggles with delivering supposedly wise pieces of dialogue. Such lines don't stir your emotions so much as they sound primed and ready to be placed against an image of a sunset and posted on your Aunt's Facebook's page. I did like that Esposito's final speech about how dinosaurs prove that things can be both magical and real was one step away from being Richard Jenkins' "Don't lose your dinosaur!" speech from Step Brothers.

It's a pity Stargirl has such a hokey script because much of the rest of the movie is agreeable if not altogether exceptional. Julia Hart does solid work in the directors' chair and she especially excels in two well-realized musical sequences. One of them sees Leo delivering a rendition of Just What I Needed by The Cars that kicks off with opening chords of the tune inspiring brief flashbacks to earlier pivotal moments of his life. It's a great touch that proves to be one of the genuinely emotionally resonant moments of Stargirl. An earlier scene depicting the title character joined by cheerleaders and band members to perform an elaborate football game song, filtered primarily through a single-take that spins around all the performers, is similarly impressive. Somebody get Hart a full-on musical, stat!

The costume design is similarly well-done and Stargirl's assorted outfits are appropriately memorable. Not only are they nifty enough to immediately become Halloween costume/cosplay staples but Hart and cinematographer Bryce Fortner nicely utilize the brightly colored nature of Stargirl's wardrobe to consistently set her apart from her drably dressed classmates. It's a well-realized visual detail that stands out as one of the more unique qualities of a production that often settles for the formulaic. Though a movie all about a girl who can't help but stand out, too much of Stargirl settles for being the forgettable sort of High School drama.

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