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Light Weight Melodrama

Yara Shahidi
Yara Shahidi
Warner Brothers
 100 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed ByRy Russo-Young
Starring: Yara Shahidi, Charles Melton    
The Sun Is Also a Star

For many people, the biggest problem with dying teenager love stories is the fact that, in the end, one of the teenagers almost invariably actually does die. And, while that may provide a good cry (or more) for the audience, it’s also a bit of a bummer for a generation that wants to feel good about something when the movie ends. So, perhaps inevitably, we get the next iteration of the dying teenager story—the deported teenager film, one that may not end well but at least isn’t fatal and provides some political commentary to boot. The result is a movie like The Sun Is Also a Star.


The film is based on a 2016 bestselling YA novel by Nicola Yoon, who previously went over much the same ground in her first novel, Everything, Everything, which was a variant of the dying teenager tale. No one is dying in The Sun Is Also a Star, but high school senior Natasha Kingsley feels she might as well be. She and her entire family are scheduled to be deported the next day back to her native Jamaica, and she is scurrying around Manhattan trying to figure out a way to stop the process. She manages to get an appointment with an immigration lawyer (John Leguizamo), who may be able to take on her case in a last-ditch pro bono effort, but on the way to the lawyer’s office, she nearly gets run over by a recklessly driven car.


Fortunately (or else the movie would definitely be a 20-minute tragedy), Natasha is rescued at the last minute by Daniel Bae (Charles Melton), who also has a very important appointment later in the day. He has an alumni interview in connection with his application to attend Dartmouth, which his Korean immigrant parents hope will lead to his becoming a doctor. Daniel’s meeting with Natasha isn’t a total coincidence. Instead, he spotted her in Grand Central Station, where she was wearing a “Deus ex Machina” jacket. Daniel had doodled the phrase earlier that day in his notebook, so based on that one tiny connection between them, Daniel follows Natasha around until he gets the chance to save—and meet—her.


Despite his parent’s wishes, Daniel isn’t that excited about the prospect of becoming a doctor. Instead, he fancies himself a poet and a romantic, and he is convinced that he and Natasha are destined to be together. So, he tells her that he can make her fall in love with him in one day. Natasha agrees but warns Daniel that she only has about an hour that she can actually spend with him. However, as the day goes on, both of their meetings get pushed back, and the new couple has a lot more time to be together and walk the streets of New York, engaging in every possible type of dreamy, romantic behavior.


The idea of a couple only having a few hours to spend together before going their separate ways has been the basis of several good films, most notably Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise. However, The Sun Is Also a Star is not in the same galaxy as Before Sunrise. The biggest problem the current film has is its mood. On the one hand, the movie takes on an extremely serious and traumatic subject, deportation, but, on the other, it treats its material as some sort of whimsical fantasy. I haven’t detailed all the coincidences and contrivances that go into this story, but suffice it to say that, in real life, Natasha and Daniel would have had better odds of happiness if they had bought a lottery ticket instead.


The Sun Is Also a Star has even more credibility problems based on the nature of the medium. This story might have worked in a novel, where the logistics of actually moving the characters around never come into play. Readers can accept the fact that a boy can be so smitten by a girl that he goes after her and winds up with an opportunity to save her life. However, when a movie audience views this on the screen, what they see is a man in his mid-to-late-20s (an overaged, miscast Melton was 27 when filming began) stalking a teenage girl for reasons that would, if he explained them to her, result in either her running for home or calling the cops.


Movies like The Sun Is Also a Star don’t have to be absolutely believable, but they do have to be plausible enough to allow the audience to suspend disbelief. Unfortunately, every time the audience begins to give this film the benefit of the doubt, the screenplay by Tracy Oliver trots out yet another preposterous contrivance, culminating in a head-shaking ending. Faced with the problem of getting the audience to buy into the picture, director Ry Russo-Young trots out lots and lots of scenic shots of the two leads wending their way around the city. Someone had a good eye for atmosphere because the camera work here is quite well done (any movie that includes a scene on the Roosevelt Island cable car is doing something right). However, multiple montages of carefully selected Manhattan locations are no substitute for actual chemistry.


The Sun Is Also a Star is not a total disaster, though. The screenplay does a better job than most of establishing the two main characters, and also has some entertaining asides, like Daniel’s description of how Koreans came to a position of prominence in the black haircare industry. The biggest legitimate surprise in the movie is the reveal that Daniel’s small businessman father does not own a bodega or restaurant as one might assume in a film like this, but, rather, a large haircare emporium. Similarly, Yara Shahidi is convincing as a girl who loves science and wants to reduce the world to a practical matter of physics and mathematics.


The Sun Is Also a Star does a lot of things right, but it never quite overcomes the utter lack of plausibility that it suffers from as a result of the failed attempt at a whimsical fantasy. A good love story involves the audience along with the participants, whether it ends happily or sadly. Here, the characters separately are mildly interesting, but the story never brings them together in an involving, meaningful manner. As a result, the movie isn’t a star; it’s merely a dim light.

In this featurette, the cast and crew talk about the process of translating Nicola Yoon's novel to the screen.

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The Sun Is Also a Star (2019) on IMDb