By ANA-SOFIA MUÑOZ
Meet Stargirl. Or should we say, Manic Pixie Dream Girl?
On Mar. 13, 2020, Disney+ released the teen romantic drama Stargirl, an adaptation of the original novel by Jerry Spinelli.
The narrator of the film, Leo Borlock (Graham Verchere), lives in the sleepy city of Mica, Arizona, where the key to survival is blending in. From the film’s start, he laments about his own choices to conform and fit in upon arriving in Mica, but according to Leo, nothing ever happens.
In fact, this odd reality of normalcy is so prominent that no one ever stands out in this suburban desert town and they are happy about it.
In comes Stargirl Caraway, played by internet sensation and pop singer, Grace VanderWaal. Enigmatic, captivatingly eccentric and unlike anyone the students of Mica High School have ever seen, Stargirl clearly does not fit the clear cut Mica-mold personality. Clad in kitschy clothing and with her ukulele in hand, she not only captures Leo’s heart, but quickly brings a renewed spirit to her peers.
Yet, as time goes on and the town actually discovers the full extent of Stargirl’s uniquely altruistic behavior, they turn against her for everything they once loved her for.
In past years, audiences have seen this story play out time and time again. A peculiar, yet whimsical girl enters a male protagonist’s mundane life and teaches him the wonders of nonconformity. More specifically, she will have a unique personality, full of individuality that shows him the true value of living life authentically. Typically, these types of characters are coined as “manic pixie dream girls” and are all too often written as existing only to serve the male protagonist’s development with none of her own.
However, despite adhering to this very common and rather primitive trope in several ways, Stargirl still remains heartfelt and never reduces its title character’s humanity to simply her curious charm.
Surprisingly, Grace VanderWaal grants an outstanding performance as Stargirl. Fans of the novel know that Stargirl’s essence is nearly impossible to capture. At times, she appears to be nothing short of fantasy—in one instance, a mesmerized Leo even inquires, “Is she magic?”
But as the movie goes on, it quickly becomes evident that VanderWaal is a perfect fit for the role of Stargirl. Aside from being the America’s Got Talent sweetheart known for her use of the ukulele, she encapsulates an especially honest portrayal of Stargirl’s worldview; particularly, she delivers a monologue that allows Stargirl’s values to truly come through. Her performance is sure to resonate with audiences, genuinely allowing them to feel what Stargirl feels as they come to sympathize with her.
Alongside VanderWaal, Graham Verchere also puts on a charming performance as the sheepish Leo. In essence, Stargirl truly holds a love story at its core, and Verchere ensures that the audience never forgets this. From his very first interactions with Stargirl, his lovestruck gaze tells the audience all they need to know about Leo’s feelings towards her.
At the same time, Verchere is still able to convey Leo’s internal conflict, between his desire to fit in and his inability to do so as a result of his relationship with Stargirl. Be that as it may, even when Leo begins to denounce her oddball behavior, he still views Stargirl with adoring enchantment.
To add, the film also offers a variety of phenomenal visuals and a brilliant soundtrack. Shot primarily in the deserts of New Mexico, there are a plethora of scenes featuring the natural beauty of the landscape, in addition to simply exceptional shots. The film takes advantage of VanderWaal’s talent: her distinct voice—and of course, her ukulele—is put to use several times throughout the movie. Older rock songs are equipped to highlight Stargirl and Leo’s blossoming relationship. The film’s score has the profound ability to strike the audience emotionally, rife with nostalgic synth melodies, delicate piano and acoustic guitar pieces reminiscent of first love and coming of age.
In spite of the positive elements of the film, critics have taken note of its various caveats. Most notably, many claim that the film’s premise is outdated. After all, the novel Stargirl was published in 2000, before the age of the Internet. Now more than ever, social media has shed a spotlight on young, quirky outsiders and put them on a pedestal. At the present moment, it is hard to imagine a character like Stargirl facing any kind of downfall. The struggle within the film feels almost archaic, and appears to be an inaccurate depiction of present-day high schoolers.
Nonetheless, Stargirl still somehow has the ability to enthrall audiences. The film makes a poignant, timeless statement about the importance of staying true to yourself and your values regardless of others’ opinions. Although its message may not be the most relevant for most teens, it still rings true in this touching tale of love and individuality.
Stargirl as a film has a bewitching allure to it, much like the character herself. As you find ways to pass time during quarantine, considering giving this family film a watch.