It’s been 20 years since author Jerry Spinelli introduced the world to Stargirl, the quirky, manic pixie dream girl who descends on an Arizona high school and then disappears just as quickly, without anyone really appreciating her impact. Though the inherent lessons about individuality and not buckling to norms remain as valid as they were two decades ago, the film version, now on Disney+, can’t help but feel like a floundering chore, particularly with similar movies like Wonder and Love, Simon, and even the streaming service’s recent Timmy Failure, doing a much better job with the same message.
America’s Got Talent winner Grace VanderWaal (she of the raspy voice and ukelele accompaniment) shines in the title role, which is a thinly-veiled, tween-aimed showcase made to broaden her fan base. Stargirl is a mysterious force, dressed (via her costume-designer single mother) in a rainbowed array of off-kilter knits and linens. After being home-schooled all of her life, she decides to attend Mica High School (go Mud Frogs!), where she meets Leo (Graham Verchere), a shy, marching band geek who always keeps his head down.
He’s instantly dazzled by Stargirl’s uniqueness, though, and even more so when he serenades him in the cafeteria on his birthday. A few days later, as the struggling football team is stuck in their mascot’s namesake mud, she takes to the field and offers a rousing rendition of “Be True to Your School”, which instantly breathes life into the team (they win their first game in years), and makes Stargirl the most popular kid overnight.
From there, it’s not hard to guess where the plot will take you (hint: eventually her individuality becomes too much for many people to handle), but VanderWaal at least keeps the character interesting and holds up her side of the bargain. The same can’t be said for virtually everyone else in the film. Verchere can’t seem to string two words together without an interminable pause between them (presumably for dramatic effect?), and he offers up the most uninspired and milquetoast performance in a Disney movie since the second tree from the left in Bambi. And there’s no reason on Earth that the always-great Giancarlo Esposito should have signed up for a role that requires nothing more out of him than to sip coffee and mutter things like, “Is she magic? Well, you’ll just have to figure that out for yourself.”
Director Julia Hart (Fast Color) does take advantage of the Southwest scenery, but when sprawling vistas are more interesting than most of the scenes involving actual people, well—there’s your sign. Stargirl ultimately feels like little more than a slogging plod of a self-help pep talk that can’t seem to muster any confidence in itself or its message. Stargirl comes, Stargirl hangs out for a few months, Stargirl leaves. It’s almost as if she didn’t matter one little bit in the long run—which is exactly the lasting impact of this film.