When you take a gander at Grace VanderWaal’s title character in Stargirl, you probably don’t think ‘unassuming.’ The loud outfit seems gaudy, the ukulele on her back reeks of ostentatiousness, and, by golly, that rat on her shoulder screams straight-up weird. Miraculously and sweetly, director Julia Hart makes all of this boldness as unassuming as possible, free of arrogance or pretension. The modesty of Jerry Spinelli’s hit source novel is intact and invigorating on this Disney+ original.
The storyteller circling the briefly introduced orb of oddity is Leo Borlock (TV actor Graham Verchere, recently of The Good Doctor and Supergirl). He and his widowed single mother (Scandal cast member Darby Stanchfield) moved to Mica, Arizona in elementary school. He decided very quickly that laying low more than standing out ensured his civic survival. Now a 16-year-old high school junior, Leo makes no waves in his friend circle working the school’s TV talk show “Hot Seat” and holding down his trumpeter’s place in the fledgling marching band.
That all changes when Leo gets a glimpse at the alluring Stargirl Caraway, the mysterious new girl to the popularity battleground hallways after years as a home-schooled local. She draws stares, gawks, and quizzical words with her every action. The eyes multiply when Stargirl steps out to midfield at halftime of a losing football game for an impromptu performance. Rocking the ukulele and belting her encouragement in song, the spotlight never leaves Grace VanderWaal or her character from there on out.
Soon enough, Stargirl’s inspiring presence turns everyone’s spirits and luck around. An uncommon kindness seemingly pours out of her smile and sparkling eyes. Stargirl goes from peculiar to popular overnight as a new centerpiece cheerleader that roots for everything big and small. Talent and uniqueness set her apart. Her aura is something intangible for everyone, especially our Leo.
It goes without saying that the bold stand out. Boldness can be too much in the same way shyness is too little, or how impulsive doers act without thinking while meek thinkers never go out and do. “Differentness,” as Spinelli once called it in the book, can incite emulation and ostracism with equally unknown odds or results. The catalyst or the tonic for any acceptance is ego, and Stargirl doesn’t have a hint of one. Her boldness should be accepted.
Leo is clearly smitten and seeks to spend time following Stargirl. These opportunities are welcomed in return by her. Their whimsical and chaste sweep of young love changes his soul and challenges him to re-embrace his confidence to be different like he used to be. All goes swimmingly well until a pair of acts of kindness are taken the wrong way in a calamitous social fallout.
It is in the shared moments away from the fickle crowds that Stargirl shows its essence. What would be loud and bouncing bounds in other high school/YA romances moves instead with soothing saunters among the saguaros silhouetting the New Mexico magic hours doubling as Arizona. Excellent camera polish from cinematographer Bryce Fortner (Ingrid Goes West) to not over-light these sequences and more. Credit for shrewdly nailing the vibe of Spinelli’s book into a teeming and tidy movie goes to director and co-writer Julia Hart, her Fast Color filmmaking partner Jordan Horowitz, and Dumplin’ screenwriter Kristin Hahn. Like the author, they put maturity above the manic pixie dream girl trope that threatens to be overbearing.
Verchere and VanderWaal exude comfortable chemistry that is not over-spiked. He is steady where he needs to be, dotes where he needs to dote, but the showcase was always going to be her. Grace VanderWaal, showing true charm on camera, rightly has her multiple talents on display in this, her acting debut after rising to stardom as an America’s Got Talent champion. VanderWaal is often backed by the strumming and dreamy electronica bends of composer Rob Simonsen and vinyl-friendly playlist of throwbacks. Her inescapable voice fills the soundtrack, our ears, and our hearts (stay through the credits for the full effect).
Without question, the largest and best takeaway from Stargirl is the lack of shame one should feel for their differences. Stargirl’s contagious morale comes from an easy poise and an empathetic aim to please. There deserves to be comfort in nonconformity. Much like Leo, the people who know you and truly get you are the only people you need to be popular with. Don’t hide from love or loves that are out of the ordinary. That’s precisely what becomes the extraordinary.