Film adaptations of popular Y.A. romance novels have proven such a boon to Netflix that it’s not surprising to see Disney Plus getting into the game. The novel in question is Jerry Spinelli’s best seller “Stargirl.” The film is noteworthy, beyond that target audience, for the participation of the director Julia Hart, the force behind last year’s breathtaking and brilliant “Fast Color.”
Leo (Graham Verchere) is a fairly typical high school student with a simple philosophy: if you want to survive, you have to lay low. He attends a small-town Arizona high school and plays in the marching band. That group’s incompetence is barely eclipsed by the football team whose sparsely-attended games they accompany.
And then a smiling girl (Grace VanderWaal) in brightly-colored clothes appears next to Leo’s table in the cafeteria, announces herself as “Stargirl,” and sings “Happy Birthday” to him in a beautiful, melodic voice (complete with ukulele accompaniment). She’s the new girl, home-schooled for years, now entering public school as a bit of an outsider.
A strange magic seems to follow Stargirl; the football team starts winning games, the marching band starts playing in tune and Leo starts to fall in love. (She also has a crate of very good vinyl, which is magical to a certain segment of viewers.)
“Stargirl” was published twenty years ago, and its age occasionally shows in this adaptation; some of the story beats and character qualities (particularly those of the rather precious title character) have congealed into cliché. But Hart (who wrote the screenplay with Kristin Hahn and Jordan Horowitz) is such an enchanting filmmaker, her storytelling style so warm and welcoming, that those concerns fade — particularly in the picture’s second half, as her characters’ interactions and motivations become more complex.
When his classmates inevitably turn on Stargirl, Leo pleads, “Why can’t you just be more like everyone else?” She gives it her best, but to no avail, and here is where the film’s message becomes clear: nothing is more important than being one’s true self. That lesson never loses its value, or its timeliness.
Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 44 minutes.