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16-year-old Clare Weitzel, the narrator, and my co-editor on the documentary (you’ll see the scenes she edited when the full movie is released), also wrote up a really touching and beautiful review of the film yesterday. If you haven’t had a chance to read it, please treat yourself and do so now.
My perspective on the film is coming from a different angle. I’m reviewing the film from the perspective of both a film lover, a Grace VanderWaal fan, and someone who fell head over heels in love with the magnificently crafted novel by Jerry Spinelli, that is really only a “young adult” novel, because the primary characters are young adults.
This movie, directed and written by Julia Hart (with co-writing credits to Kristin Hahn and Jordan Horrowitz), is very much like the novel it is based on; wonderfully crafted with a lot of emotional investment and pride, and aimed to appeal to the soul more than our desire to have our narratives fed to us with an obsession toward realism, logic and to reflect society like a mirror.
Todd Phillips, the director of this past summer’s film “Joker”, described his film as subversive; sneaking a deep character study loosely into the template of a comic book film. Julia Hart has done the same thing with “Stargirl” in that she has sneaked an indie film into a Disney family movie.
The first half of the movie plays into the format of Disney, with rousing musical numbers where Grace sings to the camera, where fun and warm feelings are projected to the viewer, but once a single unexpected act of selfless compassion by “Stargirl” takes place the movie turns into something that is truly special, as does Grace’s performance in the title role.
Where before the turning point occurs Grace’s acting was more than acceptable, it was only after that turn that we truly were privileged to see just what she is capable of as an actress (in her first role and still only 14).
Grace the actress, excels, as does Grace the singer/songwriter, at expressing herself through a lens of calm, thoughtful melancholy. She is amazing when performing fun songs like the Beach Boys classic “Be True to Your School” and the Go-Go’s “We Got The Beat”, but she is otherworldly when performing songs like George Harrison’s “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)”, or her own original “Today and Tomorrow”.
When Grace, as “Stargirl” delivers her “Becoming Nothing” monologue to Graham Verchere’s “Leo” at her enchanted place in the desert, she is utterly mesmerizing. The thoughtful and subtly powerful delivery of that beautifully crafted speech that Jerry Spinelli penned twenty years ago, was everything I hoped it would be and more. I understand why Julia Hart chose to alter my favourite line from the book, the one that caps off the monologue; “I like that most of all, being rain.” Her choice was needed in the more filmic narrative she had in mind and, as realized, it worked very well.
Grace had several other moments to shine similarly; when in the “Hot Seat” as she suffered the scorn of the school who felt she had betrayed them, and when confronted with the consequences of another act-of-kindness gone wrong. She imbued “Stargirl” with a soul, you felt her pain, shame, guilt, and desire to disappear, enough to allow her to entertain, however, temporarily, Leo’s request for her to become more “normal”, to become “Susan Carroway”.
It was during Grace’s portrayal of “Susan”, the muted “Stargirl”, where we saw another aspect of the actress’ ability to strikingly communicate a feeling she was very familiar with, that of someone being asked to be less of themselves for the sake of others. In the case of “Stargirl” it was at Leo’s request, and in Grace’s those who attempted to make her more “appealing” to a broader audience; those “big men” who would insist she write “Happy Songs”. You could feel the exhausted tension within “Susan” as she tried to maintain a front that only barely reflected her nature. I found it heartbreaking; as both Julia Hart and Grace intended.
Of course, Grace isn’t the only actor in the film. All of the actors excelled in their roles, most quite small, as this was very much “Leo’s” and “Stargirl’s” story.
This brings us of course, to Graham Verchere’s portrayal of “Leo”.
Jerry Spinelli’s “Leo” was written to be a cipher, someone he could project society’s insecurities and fear-of-change/notice upon and as such didn’t have a lot to offer by way as a character readers could easily empathize with…The “Leo” of the book was, at his core, a cowardly villain imposing his own unhealthy limitations upon “Stargirl” who is a free spirit seemingly without a ceiling on her potential.
The filmic adaptation of “Leo”, however, has been humanized, given life and depth, not only through writing choices, but by Graham as an actor who has mastered the art of subtlety. He’s a terrific young actor who reacts as well as he can project. Much of the awe we perceive from the character of “Stargirl” is due to his perception of her. Graham also comes across as a sweet person, and that aura extends to his portrayal of “Leo”. Well done, Graham.
I highly recommend the film adaptation of “Stargirl” to anyone who has ever felt repressed, either by society, their peers, or their family; they’ll relate to both “Leo” and “Stargirl”. The hipnocenti and those looking for a perfect reflection of their vision of teen-life specific to 2020 will find enough material to fault to make it unpalatable to their taste.