May 15, 2019
‘The Sun is Also a Star’ Review: A Well-Meaning But Ultimately Limp and Creepy Romance
Educational value of its title aside, The Sun Is Also a Star is a fairly limp romantic drama that attempts (and fails) to tie its core relationship to The Way We Live Now. It might seem glib to look at this movie, in which two strangers meet by happenstance and fall in love while spending the day together in a big city, as Before Sunrise for the YA set. But then, the way this film leans on how U.S. immigration policies are actively cruel towards so many people who want to emigrate to the States is in and of itself glib, especially because it feels like an unnecessary crutch to a sappy coupling.
Our two young lovers are Natasha (Yara Shahidi), a Jamaican-born immigrant, and Daniel (Charles Melton), a first-generation American with Korean parents. Natasha is desperate to stave off a forced deportation of her family, heading into NYC to meet with an immigration lawyer (John Leguizamo) who might be able to help. But she’s not watching where she walks at a traffic-heavy intersection, and would be dead were it not for Daniel saving her in the nick of time. He’s convinced that meeting Natasha is fate, and is equally confident that he can make her fall in love with him in just the one day, thus beginning their entanglement.
Daniel is struck by Natasha not solely because she’s, as a buddy of his points out, “really cute”. No, it’s the jacket she’s wearing, with the phrase “Deus ex Machina” printed in all capital letters on the back, the same phrase he felt inspired to write in a personal notebook earlier that morning. Broadcasting that phrase in a creative project is almost a dare. What it means for a movie, TV show, book, play, whatever, is that the story can be wrapped up handily with a lazy storytelling device, just to wrap things up handily. Though The Sun Is Also A Star is based on a novel of the same name, that phrase’s use in the film doesn’t mean this adaptation gets to avoid being dubbed lazy. You can point out your own flaws of storytelling, but it’s not quite as clever as simply avoiding those flaws to begin with.
Of course, the place where the film stumbles first isn’t even in the script, by Tracy Oliver; she tries to flesh out both Natasha and Daniel as we see them chafe against the hopes and dreams their parents foist upon them. The core issue is that if you’re going to craft an intimate romance, a true case of love at first sight — outside of a few brief moments near the end, the story does play out over one 24-hour period — your two lead actors must have unbeatable chemistry. The Before Sunrise films arguably wouldn’t work at all without Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. Shahidi and Melton are, in their separate scenes, fine. When placed together, there’s a disturbing lack of sparks between the pair. Their big moment, when they have some alone time in a karaoke booth and Daniel sings “Crimson and Clover”, is less swooning and romantic, and more intensely creepy.
Though Oliver’s script isn’t the first problem, it isn’t able to help out Shahidi and Melton in getting over the inherent creepiness of the premise. After Daniel saves Natasha’s life and begins interacting with her, he confidently tells her she’ll fall in love with him in an hour, and describes the X factor, saying “Don’t worry, we have it.” Melton is a moderately charming, attractive actor, thus making such dialogue not quite as off-putting as it would read on the page. But Daniel is largely the kind of romantic-genre character who sounds like a stalker, getting away with such icky proclamations because he looks pretty. Natasha, as brought to life by Shahidi, is a hardened character (understandably so due to her upcoming deportation). Hers is the better performance, even if her shift into intense love over just one day doesn’t work nearly as well as it should.
The immigration angle — and unfortunately, it does feel like an angle as opposed to a natural element of a story — ends up being frustrating, too. The issue is not that Natasha’s plight is unbelievable, but that it’s an unnecessary obstacle for her love for Daniel to overcome. There’s perhaps a bittersweet way to handle the romance and its possible conclusion after a day. However, even with deportation as the major obstacle in the film, the script refuses to let these characters get anything other than a happy ending
The Sun Is Also A Star is not actively terrible, rising to the level of forgettable more than anything else. There is something fitting, though, in how director Ry Russo-Young and cinematographer Autumn Durald Arkapaw shoot the film. More often than not, the film has a deliberate-to-the-point-of-being-distractingly hazy look, as if the lens was smeared with Vaseline. This makes it so in many shots, close-ups or wide or anything in between, we can clearly see Natasha and Daniel, but everything around them is almost blurry. (That or the projection at my theater was poor. Always a possibility!) This film’s laser focus on its leads is all well and good, but it suffers because those leads aren’t nearly as compelling as they could be.
/Film Rating: 4 out of 10
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