“Stargirl”: A Movie Adaptation 20 Years in the Making

Every now and then, I expand my dialogue about storytelling by going beyond the boundaries of books and out into the mediums of TV and film. I do so by doing these analysis pieces once in a while about a TV show or film that has reached a significant time in its history (i.e. series premiere, series finale, film release, anniversary of a release, etc.). Previously, I marked the end of an era with a look back on the ABC series, “Fresh Off the Boat.” Today, to mark its premiere from yesterday, I dive into the world of Disney+ original content for the first time, as I provide my thoughts on the film, “Stargirl.”

(WARNING: There will be spoilers from the film, not so much on the plot specifically, but more so on the changes and additions that have been made from the book it is based on.)

Based on the young adult novel of the same name by Jerry Spinelli, Leo Borlock navigates a quiet, uneventful life in Mica High when a mysterious, and possibly magical, girl named Stargirl shows up out of nowhere. She is quick to capture the school under a trance with her nonconforming approach to life and, in doing so, also captures Leo’s heart. But following an incident that results in the student body turning on her, Leo begs for her to give up her ways in order to be accepted by everyone again. Little does Leo realize what he has in front of him until it is too late.

Stargirl is a book that I hold close to me. It is one a handful of books I grew up with outside of the Harry Potter series. Author Spinelli has a knack for writing teenage characters that always come off as otherworldly in multiple different ways in all the novels he has written over the decades. What makes Stargirl distinct is both the magic it carries and the lessons intertwined in the plot.

It’s also one of a handful of novels that I’ve always seen as just as magical of a film if done right, and boy was it a long time in the making. Stargirl was released in the year 2000, making it officially 20 years old this year. In a time where a book can go from the shelves to the big screen in the matter of a few years, the adaptation of this film has certainly been a long time coming; long enough to where the lead actors, Grace VanderWaal and Graham Verchere, weren’t even born yet when the book came out.

But sometimes, things need to take a little longer than usual in order to create something wonderful, which is why I’m glad to say that the film is one that I absolutely adore. Like many film adaptations, it’s not a carbon copy of the book, and for what it’s worth, I think it’s a good thing. Some standouts about the film that I like include the following:

  • In one scene, Stargirl shows Leo her collection of vinyl records. While Leo is drawn to her copy of The Cars’ title album (due to the shared memories he has of it with his late dad), Stargirl introduces him to the band Big Star; specifically their song, “Thirteen.” These bands are not mentioned at all in the novel, but the way their music is integrated into the storyline in the film make for a nice touch.
  • Leo’s backstory is changed. While the porcupine neckties remain, the source of them are altered. His first one is revealed to be from his dad, who passed away when he was really young. He wears it everyday and everywhere, until his first day of school in Mica, Arizona where a bunch of kids gang up on him and cut his tie in half. From that day on, he lives life under the radar in order to blend in. I liked this change from the book, for it gives Leo all the more of a reason to learn from Stargirl; she’s not afraid to be herself and embrace her uniqueness, and neither should he.
  • The book came out in the year 2000, which means it had to have been more or less written in the 90’s. The times have changed so much since then, and the film integrates that as it resets this timeless story into the modern day. This is evident from the technology, the diversity in the casting, etc.
  • The casting is very well done. Grace and Graham do a great job of bringing Stargirl and Leo to life, and then some. I like how Grace made Stargirl more stern with Leo on what he thinks about. In turn, I like how Graham made Leo kind-hearted and open to showing his vulnerabilities. I also want to highlight Karan Brar as Kevin. He’s exactly how I imagined him; a young man that kind of has an ego, but is ultimately a good friend to Leo. (He also has a ton of good moments throughout the film, just saying…)
  • Aside from incorporating the music of 70’s rock bands into the plot, I like how the creative team really utilized Grace’s talents that put her in the limelight to begin with; her singing and ukulele playing. Aside from already inhabiting skills exactly to that of her character, she was able to pull off musical numbers that added a lot of momentum to the film.

I’ve spoken a length already about some of the changes for the film that I like, but one that I found – for lack of a better word – interesting was the decision to have Leo and Stargirl form a relationship at the height of her popularity, as opposed to the book where she is already turned away by the student body. It’s a change that I can see both pros and cons to. On one hand, I find it fascinating that he got to know her at a deeper level when everyone else around her only liked what they saw on the surface. On the other hand, it kind of contradicts the depth of which Leo’s curiosity permeates about her in the book, when he takes the time to know her better when practically no one else would.

As much as I liked the film, that doesn’t mean I also don’t have my share of critiques about it as well:

  • I didn’t think there was enough of Archie; an archaeologist and mentor and friend to Leo. He played an integral part in helping Leo understand what he’s going through and challenging his thought process. His impact wasn’t as prominent as it was in the book. (Also, SMH at the lack of appearances from Señor Saguaro and Barney.)
  • Leo has two other friends in the film other than Kevin. While I understand why they were added (to show that he does have a bit of a social life), they didn’t really contribute much in the long run.
  • As much as I liked Grace’s performance, I thought she seemed to be almost too grounded at times. The persona of Stargirl is both deep and light, and sometimes, she didn’t always nail that.
  • There wasn’t enough of Cinnamon either. While for practical purposes, I understand why, but I also wonder why incorporate the rat at all when it was only in a few scenes.
  • A change made for the film was to have Stargirl also come from a single-parent household. While maybe it worked in giving Stargirl and Leo some common ground, ultimately, I didn’t think it was necessary.
  • I also didn’t like how the story was set over the course of a semester instead of a school year. The plot felt a little rushed as a result.

Critiques aside, I believe that “Stargirl” does a good job of embodying the essences of what makes the book so special. It’s been 20 years in the making, and by way of the universe working in a timeless fashion, I’m happy with the final product. As we are living in crazier than usual times, it’s good to know that there’s a film on Disney+ now that will bring a sense of light and value.

“The earth is speaking to us, but we can’t hear because of all the racket our senses are making. Sometimes we need to erase them, erase our senses. Then – maybe – the earth will touch us. The universe will speak. The stars will whisper.” –Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

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