Being a teenager is tough, no matter when you start attending high school. But while some social challenges never change, the details of how they manifest across teen culture evolve. Ask someone who graduated in 2009 about how they used social media, and you’ll get a very different answer than what a 2019 graduate would say. Like all stories, high-school dramas might tackle similar universal themes, but they can still suffer when they’re bogged down by the specificities of a time gone by.
Based on the 2000 Jerry Spinelli novel of the same name, the newest Disney Plus original movie Stargirl suffers from trying to make its outdated plot relevant in 2020. Director Julia Hart and screenwriters Kristin Hahn and Jordan Horowitz seem to recognize that aspects of teen life in the early 2000s don’t hold up in 2020, and they try to reconcile the 20-year difference. If they’d set the movie in 2000 — like Hulu’s 2019 Looking for Alaska, which takes place in 2005, when the John Green novel it adapts was published — most of the disconnect would make sense. But because the movie is a 2000s story set 20 years later, the story feels superficial and outdated. The plot about being true to yourself is still relevant, but Stargirl addresses it at a surface level, without ever really going beyond the main character’s mildly quirky aesthetic.
[Ed. note: This post contains spoilers for both Stargirl the 2000 book and the 2020 Disney Plus movie]
The gist of the novel Stargirl is that quirky Stargirl — the type of person who sings “Happy Birthday” to strangers and wears theatrical costumes just because she likes them — starts at a public high school after being homeschooled all her life. Initially, she fascinates the teenagers around her. Then her unrelenting weirdness puts them off, and they all turn on her. Leo, the narrator and love interest, is also initially drawn to her weirdness. Then he’s put off by it, and wishes she could be just a little more normal.
Stargirl could fall into hokey Manic Pixie Dream Girl tropes. (Arguably, without the support of the 2007 follow-up novel Love, Stargirl, written from Stargirl’s point of view, it does.) But because it’s told from Leo’s perspective, it’s easy to see that his perception of who she is and what he wants from her are wrong. Leo becomes the villain of his own story, because he wants her to conform when he realizes the student body’s judgment of her extends to him.
And that entire dynamic seems like a relic from an earlier era. At the crest of the 2000s, young-adult media focused diligently on cliques and conformity, but these clichés don’t hold up today in the same way. Just look at the difference between clique-focused High School Musical and the Disney Plus original High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, where one of the drama-program stars is also on the water-polo team. The individuality that got Stargirl ostracized in the original novel wouldn’t be such a controversial issue in 2020, where once “geeky” or “weird” hobbies are now mainstream, teens grew up with narratives focusing on individuality and breaking the status quo, and the average high-school student is involved in so many activities that being just a “jock” or a “band geek” doesn’t really happen anymore.
Grace Vanderwaal, who plays Stargirl in the movie, rose to fame on America’s Got Talent, because she was a quirky ukulele-playing girl. When she plays Stargirl, she’s playing herself (or at least, her curated stage persona) — an outgoing, aspirational success, with a record deal to prove it. Stargirl’s outfits are bright and funky, but they don’t look out of place for a teenager in 2020, particularly someone who looks like a stereotypical all-American girl. She’s quirky, but it’s cool to be quirky in 2020. In order to make Stargirl stand out a little more, the 2020 version of her doesn’t have a cell phone, and listens to music on a record player. That still doesn’t really make sense as a source of conflict (record players are in), but sure. Because Stargirl’s quirky aesthetic isn’t all that alienating, the story’s problem shifts to another part of her character: her determined do-gooder attitude.
Stargirl’s compassion becomes a target for her critics. In the book, her willingness to cheer for the opposing team at sports games initially makes her popular, but then slowly turns the student body against her. But in the movie, there’s no gradual escalation of the students finding her annoying. It happens suddenly. A rival football player is severely injured — so badly injured, an audible snap! Is heard on screen — and while everyone cheers, Stargirl rushes to his side to hold his hand. No one can understand why she’d extend kindness to the opposing team. That’s a weird extreme reaction to high-school sports that’s more reminiscent of Riverdale, which would be fine if the rest of the movie had the same overly dramatic tone.
None of this seems all that shocking in 2020, but even so, Leo tells Stargirl that she shouldn’t be so weird. This apparently requires her to revert to her given name, Susan, and start wearing plain grey clothes, even though the students’ critiques were about her perceived nosiness, not her quirky-girl aesthetic. That disconnect between cause and effect extends to the rest of the film.
While the crux of Stargirl’s character and the reactions to her seem out of place, the rest of the high-school experience in Stargirl is endearingly real. The small marching band plays a tinny song as they trod across a field. Leo’s friends run a student-produced broadcast with clunky old school equipment and cheesy sound effects. Their conversations and gentle teasing of one another makes them feel like real teens. Leo’s mom tries to connect with him, but keeps missing. But the more accurate parts of the film make elements like the overreaction to the football injury even more jarring.
At least Stargirl’s motivations feel genuine. Vanderwaal imbues her exterior quirkiness with some deep-seated loneliness and a desire to connect. During an interview for the student broadcast, she shyly admits to a group of students that the reason she decided to stop being homeschooled is so she could make friends. She looks like a misfit in “normal” clothing, but her expression is so earnest, it’s clear she thinks trying to conform is a good idea. When she enters a speech competition and tries to do it “normally,” her discomfort is real.
But the movie isn’t Stargirl’s story. It’s actually Leo’s, so it focuses on how he and the rest of the school perceives her. By the end of the movie, they’ve all learned some lessons from their attempt to shun Stargirl. But instead of reconciling their own actions or learning something about compassion, they just start to wear bright colors, decorate the school’s trophy case, and talk about how Stargirl must’ve had magical powers.
That’s a superficial message to take away from the girl they relentlessly bullied for being compassionate, but hey, it makes for a great aesthetic backdrop for new Grace Vanderwaal songs. If the takeaway had been a lesson about judging people for the deeper aspects of their personality, which seemed likely earlier in the film, the message could have made sense. Even if modern teenagers don’t deride ukulele girls anymore, they still judge in general. There’s a thread buried deep in here about cynicism in the online age, and distrusting people’s motives in a time of polarizing social media. But dressing that up in bright overalls and flowers robs the movie of any resonance.
Stargirl is streaming now on Disney Plus.