'Midnight Sun': Film Review

A manipulative but effective tearjerker.

Bella Thorne and Patrick Schwarzenegger star in Scott Speer's drama about a teenage girl afflicted with a rare disease that makes exposure to the sun deadly.

If the tragic disease Xeroderma Pigmentosum (XP) didn't exist, Hollywood would probably have to invent it. The illness causes an extreme sensitivity to ultraviolet rays, meaning that in the most serious cases sufferers must completely avoid any exposure to the sun. It is a condition ripe for symbolism, not to mention cultural allusions including vampires and fairy tales. The latter is very much on display in Scott Speer's drama starring Bella Thorne as a 17-year-old girl living under the shadow of the disease who finds true love for the first time in her life. That the object of her affections is played by the dreamy Patrick Schwarzenegger (son of Arnold, as if you hadn't already guessed) only adds to Midnight Sun's appeal to its target teenage-girl demographic.

Based on the Japanese film Song to the Sun (for some reason, the disease afflicts Japanese people six times more than others), the story revolves around Katie (Thorne), who spends days in her suburban home safely protected by tinted windows, venturing out only at night. Her good-humored, devoted widower father Jack (Rob Riggle) does everything he can to make her life bearable, but Katie inevitably feels isolated, her only other company being Morgan (Quinn Shephard), her best friend since childhood who visits regularly. Compounding Katie's frustration is her years-long unrequited crush on Charlie (Schwarzenegger), whom she's been watching walking and skating down her street since they were adolescents.

Katie's principal outlet is heading to the small local train station after sunset, where she serenades arriving travelers with her original songs while accompanying herself on guitar. It's there that she happens to run into Charlie, who approaches her one night, intrigued by her music. Not adept at social situations, let alone meeting the love of her life, Katie immediately turns into a dithering idiot, telling him that she has to rush home to hold a funeral for her cat. 

"This is what Taylor Swift does," her friend Morgan later observes. "She has awkward interactions with boys and writes amazing songs about it."

After Katie and Charlie not so coincidentally run into each other once more, they begin a romance that Katie complicates by hiding her condition. Instead, she keeps making convoluted excuses for turning down daytime invitations like a sailing excursion, while he's too besotted with her to notice anything wrong. It isn't long before they share an idyllic first kiss, the film's soundtrack swelling appropriately.

One night, Charlie surprises Katie with an unexpected trip to Seattle, where he persuades her to sing her songs at a promenade along the waterfront. Her performance immediately draws the sort of carefully composed, diverse crowd that would populate a Benetton ad, and the couple celebrate with a late-night swim. (In their underwear, of course. This is a PG-13 film.)

Unfortunately, they lose track of time and Katie suddenly realizes that the sun is about to peek over the horizon. She desperately implores Charlie to take her home and runs into her house like Cinderella just before midnight. But it's too late. Although only for a few seconds, the sun's rays have reached her. And that's when many audience members should be prepared to have tissues on hand.

Now, a little internet research on XP indicates that most people don't suffer nearly as photogenically as Katie, whose deterioration manifests itself mainly by bags under her eyes, paleness and a slight hand tremor. If she developed the horrible skin lesions more common to victims, this would be a very different movie.

As it is, Midnight Sun does an effective job of tugging at vulnerable teenage hearts, while managing to provide a few laughs along the way. None of the film rings remotely true, especially the cornball conclusion, but the two young leads are so darn attractive and appealing that one can't help being caught up in their characters' poignant romance. Thorne thankfully doesn't over-milk her character's pathos, and Schwarzenegger, although a bit stiff at times, hits the right emotional notes.  

It also helps that Riggle, in a rare dramatic role, is utterly convincing as the warm and endearing father any teenage girl would give their eyeteeth to have, and that Shepard is tartly amusing as the best friend.

Like a Taylor Swift song, Midnight Sun is emotionally manipulative and not nearly as profound as it thinks it is. But you'd have to be made of stone to entirely resist it.

Production companies: Boies/Schiller Film Group, Wrigley Pictures
Distributor: Global Road Entertainment
Cast: Bella Thorne, Patrick Schwarzenegger, Rob Riggle, Quinn Shephard
Director: Scott Speer
Screenwriter: Kenji Bando
Producers: John Rickard, Zack Schiller, Jen Gatien
Executive producers: David Boies, James McGough, Scott Speer, Alan Ou, Hiroki Shirota
Director of photography: Karsten "Crash" Gopinath
Production designer: Eric Fraser
Editors: Tia Nolan, Michelle Harrison
Composer: Nathaniel Walcott
Casting: Rich Delia

Rated PG-13, 90 minutes