I can't lie.
I cried through a good majority of the upcoming Disney+ release Stargirl, a film that stars 16-year-old singer/musician Grace VanderWaal in her film debut as Mica High School's free-spirited new girl Stargirl Caraway, whose name only begins to hint at the wonders that lie within this young girl's heart.
Having spent the past three months of my own life in a whirlwind of medical trauma and extraordinary acts of kindness, I was enchanted from beginning-to-end by Stargirl, whose peculiar individuality and seemingly complete lack of self-consciousness proves charming and impossibly compelling to Leo (Graham Verchere), a mild-mannered marching band trumpeter who is more willing to surrender himself to the conforming ways of the high school social scene.
Based on a best-selling YA novel by Jerry Spinelli, Stargirl is set in the present yet has a vibe reminiscent of the old Disney family flicks I used to watch as a child on Sunday nights that brought me such precious joy. Indeed, joy was often the experience while watching Stargirl, a good-hearted and tender coming-of-age story with lessons about remaining true to oneself, individuality, kindness, authenticity, and so much more.
VanderWaal, who at age 12 won the 11th season of America's Got Talent, is a complete and utter gem here with such a natural screen presence that it's hard to believe no one's gotten her on the big screen before now. Regardless, Stargirl is the perfect vehicle for her cinematic debut.
In the film, VanderWaal illuminates the screen as the ukulele-playing girl with a quirky charm and a seemingly endless giving spirit that displays itself often spontaneously and anonymously a she seems to like everyone and everything including people and animals and flowers. Homeschooled for most of her childhood, Stargirl's transition to the world of public high school is initially met with the unbridled skepticism one expects in high school but before long her contagious enthusiasm wins over her wary school, at least until an act of kindness toward an opposing high school's injured quarterback is seen as betrayal by her fellow students and she returns to being the shunned oddball.
There's little denying that the story in Stargirl is a familiar one, though it's also the kind of story that we love to read, love to watch, and love to re-watch time and time again. Spinelli's novel has sold 2 million copies and director Julia Hart brilliantly brings that story to life.
Stargirl allows VanderWaal to shine as both a singer and an actress and there's simply no doubt that Bryce Fortner's camera absolutely loves her. VanderWaal lights up the screen and will light up your heart. While much can and should be said about VanderWaal's performance here, she's surrounded by an exceptional ensemble including Graham Verchere, a Young Artist Award winner who adds so much depth and substance to what could have easily been another stereotypically nerdish role. A veteran of multiple television series including The Good Doctor, Supergirl, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, and Fargo, Verchere beautifully captures the big and little ways that Leo transforms under Stargirl's tapestry of kindness into a young man more comfortable with himself and his place in the world. The rest of the ensemble cast shines with extra kudos going to Karan Brar as Kevin Singh, Maximiliano Hernandez as Mr. Robineau, the always dependable Giancarlo Esposito as Archie, Darby Stanchfield as Leo's mom, and Sara Arrington as Stargirl's mom, Ana.
The script, by the trio of Hart with Kristin Hahn and Jordan Horowitz, is simple yet never plays a false note even with a surprising amount of musical interludes obviously designed to showcase VanderWaal's infinitely appealing voice. There's one scene, in particular, that captures the harshness of perceived betrayal yet Stargirl never loses its abundant heart and goodness.
Stuck at home over the past three months following the loss of my left leg, I've been enveloped by a spirit very similar to that which takes hold in Stargirl. It's a spirit of unabashed kindness and seemingly irrevocable goodness. There are people, I've learned, who simply must be kind and good and true and present and if you try to hinder that you lose the person. Stargirl is very much that kind of girl, a spirit so genuine and so real that if you try to make her "normal" you lose the spark that guides her entire being.
Again, I cried again and again and again in the most healing and cathartic of ways.
With a wonderful music score by Rob Simonsen and a soundtrack of familiar tunes often performed by either VanderWaal, Verchere, or both, Stargirl is simply a complete joy of a film with a spark that lasts long after the closing credits have scrolled by.
Stargirl is available exclusively on Disney+ starting on March 13th.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic