CAST: Grace VanderWaal, Elijah Richardson, Uma Thurman, Judy Greer, Judd Hirsch, Tyrel Jackson Williams, Al Madrigal, Sarayu Blue, Chris Williams, Nija Okoro
RUNNING TIME: 105 mins
BASICALLY…: Stargirl (VanderWaal) heads to Hollywood where she makes new friends and new dreams…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
As one of the very first features to debut on Disney+ upon its UK launch in 2020, Stargirl didn’t exactly get things off to the best start for the streaming service. A bland, pretentious and deeply cynical attempt by the studio to create their own version of the classic “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” stereotype, that film fell flat in its authenticity, with a central character who was constructed to be so infallible that she barely felt human, not to mention she largely served as a mere pawn for the film’s actual (and male) lead without hardly any real desires of her own.
It is a glaring problem that is very much addressed in the sequel, titled Hollywood Stargirl, as though director and co-writer Julia Hart (who also made the first film, along with her co-writer and producer husband Jordan Horowitz) was herself aware of the fact that her central figure was too perfect of a character to focus on. By placing complete focus on the title character, and therefore placing the vast majority of the drama on her, Hart actually allows this person to feel normal instead of a mere construct based off of charts suggesting what certain age groups like to see, in one of the many ways in which this movie is a vast improvement over its predecessor.
The film begins with Stargirl (Grace VanderWaal), the teen music prodigy with a pet rat and an endlessly quirky fashion style, on the move once more, this time to Los Angeles where her mother Ana (Judy Greer) has gotten a job as a costume designer on a movie set. Left to her own devices while Ana works tirelessly, Stargirl makes a bunch of new friends whose lives she enchants with her good-natured charm and strong musical talent. They include brothers Evan (Elijah Richardson) and Terrell (Tyrel Jackson Williams), a pair of aspiring filmmakers who recruit Stargirl to star in and perform music for a sizzle reel for their potential movie; her grumpy neighbour Mr. Mitchell (Judd Hirsch), who used to be a film producer back in the day; and former singer Roxanne Martel (Uma Thurman) who now spends her time at a local bar. As her friendships blossom within a city she falls more and more in love with, Stargirl manages to come into her own as a creative force and as a strong believer in the power of following one’s own dreams.
Crucially, though, the character of Stargirl also evolves into, well, an actual character. Whereas before she really was just there to be a Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype – so much so, in fact, that it removed any traces of humanity as she kept winning over more and more people with incredible ease – she actually feels like a real human being in this film, partly because Hart and Horowitz’s script allows her to have moments where she doesn’t have all the answers, or even manages to make everyone like her upon first glance. There are still plenty of times when just about every positive thing imaginable comes her way, from coincidental opportunities with movie-making and recording music, to the affection of the handsome writer whose script she enthusiastically agrees to become a part of, but it feels a lot more genuine this time with all the contrivances, to a point where you start to not mind how this glossy depiction of Hollywood isn’t entirely realistic. Hart actually does make you care about this person, who is shown to have flaws (however minor they may be) and a sense of naivety which makes her seem more rounded and three-dimensional than before.
The lead performance of Grace VanderWaal, who scored the part originally following her success on America’s Got Talent, is also a lot more assured than before. Though some leeway must be given to her previous turn as the character since it was her acting debut, it was a slightly off performance that suggested a nervousness in front of the camera (though in all fairness, the writing wasn’t strong enough for any competent young actor to make believable). Here, VanderWaal seems much more comfortable as a screen performer, and easily carries this movie with a genuine sense of charm and charisma that was sorely lacking in the first film, because here the writing is letting her be much more than the designated stereotype. The actress has strong chemistry with most of the people she acts opposite, including Elijah Richardson who has good chops as a romantic lead, but neither the movie nor the actress forgets that Stargirl is very much at the centre of this story, and both work to make this person feel alive in ways that are genuinely likeable and sweet, with her more out-there traits from the fashion sense to her pet rat being significantly toned down in favour of expanding who she is as an actual person.
It is a very likeable film, and not just in the sense that it’s a sequel that actually learns from its previous mistakes and does well to correct them as much as possible. While the tone and narrative remains wholesome to a fault, with moments of conflict that are still rather easily resolved, Hollywood Stargirl still manages to one-up its less genuine predecessor by actually injecting a ton of humanity into the proceedings, and allows its characters – once constructed to check as many corporate boxes as possible – to feel approachable and fully-functioning. It’s hardly ground-breaking, and far from the best example of late regarding a sequel that ranks much, much higher than the original (looking at you, Top Gun: Maverick), but it is at least encouraging to see a second chance being granted upon a character that could have easily fallen into mockable obscurity, and having that moment be spent developing them into a much more relatable human being whose reason for existing stretches far beyond filling the traits of a particular stereotype.
I know that there are people out there who, like me, were so unimpressed by the first movie that the very thought of a sequel causes the eyes to roll repeatedly. However, even those people might be surprised to actually find that the Manic Pixie Dream Girl they were once annoyed by, is now a lot more human than she originally was.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Hollywood Stargirl is a vast improvement on the disingenuous original, primarily for how it manages to develop its central character, previously nothing more than a cynical depiction of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl stereotype, into a more fleshed-out and natural human being, which makes the movie surrounding her feel more likeable and tolerable as a result.
Hollywood Stargirl is now available to stream on Disney+.
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