Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Second Chance Sundays: ‘The Sun Is Also a Star’

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We’re in a weird place right now both personally and industry-wise. The COVID-19 has upended almost every system by revealing flaws and cracks we either knew existed or had stubbornly ignored.  While many of us face quarantine, it has become a time of reflection and in the case of film critics a time to get creative while Hollywood decides how to proceed. 

So, here at The Fandomentals we present Second Chance Sundays and Whatever Wednesdays.  On Second Chance Sundays I will take a movie previously reviewed and take another crack at it. I’ll be looking at movies I loved, hated, or just felt meh about. I think Whatever Wednesdays speak for themselves. This only temporary until everything settles down somewhat. 

If I’m perfectly honest I don’t like my original review of Ry Russo-Young’s The Sun is Also a Star. Not that my take has changed all that much. But I’m entirely too flippant, mean, and dismissive for such a well-meaning and in the end harmless, and at times very affecting, film. Granted it is no secret people love reading scathing reviews for bad movies more than reading great reviews of great movies.

But Also a Star isn’t a bad movie so much as it is a flawed movie about two teenagers in love fighting against impossible odds. I had forgotten the most important lesson of Romeo & Juliet or even Say Anything. Which is it’s not that these people are young, foolish, impulsive, and just blowing things out of proportion; rather than understanding and remembering when that was the case for us.  

I conflated my annoyance with the character’s own ignorance on philosophical inconsistencies with Tracy Oliver’s scripts attempting to show us how teenagers really are. Part of the reason many teenagers are so grating is their own arrogant belief in what they have just read as unshakable and immovable fact.  

I’ve argued with enough rational dude-bros online that believing that someone could read Sagan and come away thinking that love is silly and irrational isn’t all that hard to imagine. God save us from impassioned teenagers who have just read an earth-shattering or intelligently written essay or book. Because they will undoubtedly miss the point entirely. 

I forgot about the most important part of any act of film criticism, empathy. Films are empathy windows and while Yara Shahidi’s Natasha and Charles Melton’s Daniel are acting irrationally and seem to wildly misunderstand the art and ideas they purport to love-well they are human after all. In truth, Russo-Young’s direction and Oliver’s script do a remarkable job in making it clear that Natasha and Daniel are in love with each other, narrative and structural faults be damned. 

Oliver’s adaptation of Nicola’s book of the same name has its flaws, but it understands Natasha and Daniel better than I did at the time, and endeavors to try and put us squarely in their shoes. Though the use of deportation as plot device still rankles me. We are allowed to understand Daniel’s family much more than we are Natasha’s and they are the ones being forced to leave against their will. 

Still, perhaps I am merely falling victim to the trap of criticizing the movie I wanted to see as opposed to the movie I got. The fact that it mentions deportations at all and frames it as a very real traumatizing life-altering fact is daring itself, especially considering we have a cinematic landscape which all but pretends that immigration is either a scourge when it is shown or just ignored entirely. Curiously in a world dominated by mega-budget movies about “heroes” the only films to even broach the notion of immigration are a low budget exploitation flick, a sci-fi action film about killer robots, and a film positing two characters created to be anti-heroes and painting them as heroes. All of these films are either franchise installment or a sequel that has been pared down and streamlined for mass consumption.  

Either way, Also a Star stands alone in actually showing a consequence with the deportation in a way that is neither a cheat nor a “Hollywood” ending. It fits for what it is, a love story about two teenagers doing rash things while trying to figure out how to express themselves to the world and more importantly to themselves and their family. 

Russo-Young is blessed with two actors who have dynamite chemistry. Combined with her cinematographer, Autumn Durald, they take Oliver’s script and create a charming and deeply felt work of romantic melancholy and optimism. The fascinating thing about Also A Star is not that it stumbles from time to time but how when it stumbles the film is never in danger of being seriously harmed by it. 

Putting aside the fact that romantic movies about interracial teenagers or young adults are bizarrely rare, Russo-Young achieves something most romantic movies fail at. She convinces us that there is a very real physical and emotional connection between the two. Granted it is odd that for all it’s supposed progressivism Hollywood can barely bring itself to picture two people of varying skin color, none of whom are white, falling in love. Much less two people are from different ethnicities and classes. 

I am pleased to report that the karaoke scene is as beautiful and transportive as it was the first time, I saw Also a Star in theaters. Durald’s camera work, and Joe Landauer’s editing, make for one of the most erotically charged montages filled with yearning, hope, and sheer need that I’ve seen outside of a Barry Jenkins or Wong Kar-wai film. Atop all of that Shahidi and Melton convey such a deep desire for connection and understanding that it remains one of my favorite and most memorable scenes of 2019. 

Russo-Young and Oliver are so deeply earnest it’s easy to allow our cynicism to interfere with what the movie is trying to do; like I did. It’s not a documentary it’s a young adult romantic fantasy about two people falling in love in New York City. One character believes in love the other does not.  

Re-watching the movie amidst all the overwhelming fear, uncertainty, pain, and sadness, I found myself ashamed of my original review. The Sun is Also a Star is a delightful optimistic escape of a romantic fantasy. It also reminds us of what it’s like to be young, of the optimistic passion and incurable tendency to accept things as they are. An important reminder and one that we could use more of these days. 

Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

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