Entertainment

Disney+'s 'Stargirl' Is a Low-Stakes Teen Movie That Will Have You Humming

stargirl
Disney+

When you first start Stargirl, the latest movie on Disney+, you might think it was zapped in from another time. Not just because it isn't filled with the utter dread of basically everything else going on in the world right now, but because of its dedication to '70s pop and its heroine that seems dropped in from a Moldy Peaches song. Stargirl feels like both a potential Gen Z obsession and a strange artifact. But what is it? Let me explain.

What is Stargirl

Lest you think that Stargirl seems like the product of a mind who has watched Garden State one too many times, know that the original Stargirl actually came out far before Zach Braff's sad boy-quirky girl quasi-classic. The movie is based on a 2000 novel by famed author Jerry Spinelli of Maniac Magee fame that came out long before culture writers had picked apart and finally buried the trope of the manic pixie dream girl. It's obviously hard not to see Stargirl at least a little in that context. (There's even a screaming into the "infinite abyss" moment.) 

The movie, directed by Julia Hart, follows Leo Borlock (Graham Verchere), a 16-year-old who prefers invisibility to making waves after being bullied in his youth for wearing his dead father's tie to school. Suddenly, a new girl appears one day when he's at band practice. She dresses like a rag doll/clown, carries a ukulele everywhere, has a pet rat, and goes by the name of Stargirl (Grace VanderWaal). She seems to know everything about everyone and about the universe. She introduces herself to Leo by singing him happy birthday, though he has no idea how she knows it's his birthday. One day, during a football game, she goes onto the field in a yellow jumpsuit and sings "Be True to Your School," inspiring the team to victory. Without giving too much away, the point of Stargirl is that Stargirl is not actually a magical creature at all, just a particularly attentive, creative girl. 

Still, even Hart has trouble getting away from the aggressive adorkability. Hart's an astute director who last year made the underrated Fast Color, a story about women who are actually supernatural, and she has a knack for capturing gorgeous landscapes. Stargirl looks stunning, making use of the Arizona landscape. The frames are flush with color.

stargirl
Disney+

Who is Stargirl? 

There's a meta element to the casting of Stargirl. VanderWaal is a singer-songwriter who rose to fame when she appeared, strumming a ukulele, on America's Got Talent at the age of 12. She leveraged that into an actual pop career, and released the EP Letters Vol. 1 at the end of last year. So if Stargirl seems particularly, well, professional in the many musical sequences, that's because she is. The movie operates almost as a musical. There is near constant singing.

Why is Stargirl named Stargirl? 

Well, Stargirl herself answers the question in the movie. After she earns the ire of her classmates by comforting an injured player from an opposing football team, she goes on the school's talk show (?) and is asked whether Stargirl is her real name. In a very "it was given to me by me" Lady Bird situation, it's not; her given name is Susan. So why Stargirl? "We're made from the dust of dead stars." Okay! These are the vibes you're getting here!

stargirl
Disney+

What does Stargirl sound like? 

Here's the thing: If the one thing Stargirl does is get teens into Big Star and The Cars, then it's done some good in the world. Two major plot moments revolve around Big Star's "Thirteen" and The Cars' "Just What I Needed," great songs both. Maybe it will be a gateway drug for deeper cuts.

Should you watch Stargirl

Stargirl is an odd movie, which seems both aware of all the baggage that comes with its plot and also has trouble ridding itself of said baggage. Some of the conflicts are downright baffling. (Why, for instance, are these teenagers so confused that one of their peers would come to the aid of an injured person?) It comes most alive when the characters are singing. That is, once you get over the initial cringe-worthy realization of, "Oh my god, these characters are singing." Stargirl is something I would have absolutely loved when I was around 13 and thought every outfit would have been improved with a pair of rainbow high knee socks. As an adult, I'm a little more wary of the movie's cuteness, but maybe you need that kind of pick me up in these troubled times.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.