'The Sun Is Also a Star': Film Review

A teen romance that never catches fire.

Yara Shahidi and Charles Melton play star-crossed lovers in Ry Russo-Young’s YA-inspired drama.

The team behind The Sun Is Also a Star didn’t set out to make a New York City tourist promo with a couple of great-looking actors traipsing around. But that is exactly what this generic, surprisingly flat romance resembles. And as talented as Yara Shahidi and Charles Melton are individually, they don’t have much chemistry as a pair of mismatched high school students — she believes in science, while he’s a romantic — who meet and fall for each other in the course of a single day. Those problems pretty much doom the film, based on Nicola Yoon’s best-selling YA novel.

Shahidi, who is such a strong presence in Black-ish and Grown-ish, plays Natasha, whose family is about to be deported back to Jamaica. They are scheduled to leave the next day, but Natasha is making one last desperate effort to reopen their case, meeting first with an immigration officer and later with a lawyer. Her voiceover sets up the story, as she says that the astronomer Carl Sagan was her hero, because he valued facts. Her allusions to science here and there in the film are literary devices that don’t translate well to the screen. She is also sentimental about the idea of home, which to her is New York. 

Melton (Riverdale) projects effortless charm as Daniel, who is heading off to a college interview. His parents, immigrants from South Korea, insist he should attend Dartmouth and become a doctor. All he wants to do is write poetry, as suggested by his roomful of books by Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman.

He scribbles the phrase "Deus Ex Machina" in his notebook of poems. Later, when he spots Natasha wearing a jacket with that phrase emblazoned on the back, he sees it as fate and chases her out of Grand Central Station, where she has been staring at the stars painted on the ceiling. Grand Central is such a classic movie location that it can easily play as cliche, which it does here, especially when we see overhead shots of people walking around, and when the camera swirls around on ground level.

Daniel follows Natasha into the subway, down to Chinatown, past restaurants and streets crowded with food stands and delivery people on bikes. He avoids a stalker-y meeting by saving her from stepping in front of a speeding car, and she agrees to let him try to persuade her that love is real.

That Chinatown setting is the first sign of how much director Ry Russo-Young (Before I Fall, Nobody Walks) and cinematographer Autumn Durald Arkapaw (Teen Spirit, Palo Alto) will rely on the city backdrop, and how intrusive it will become. Together, Natasha and Daniel go through a day of hopes and reversals, of canceled and rescheduled appointments. She even meets his family because an errand takes him to the business they own, a store selling black hair-care products in Harlem. That episode begins with an utterly unnecessary montage of the neighborhood, complete with a glimpse of the Apollo Theater marquee. In a brief, intriguing culture-clash episode, Natasha meets Daniel’s belligerent older brother and his father, who insults her by suggesting she could use some hair relaxer.

But she and Daniel never stay put for long. They hit the Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Natural History, because, after all, she’s a girl who likes stars and thinks the sun is underappreciated. They even, for no reason, take a tram that crosses the East River between Manhattan and Roosevelt Island, looking into each other’s eyes. For two kids who have grown up in New York, they have a strangely tourist-like itinerary.

Arkapaw makes it all look stunning, with vibrant colors and graceful camera movements, but the scenes are pretty to no purpose. And the characters don’t pay much attention to their surroundings. The effect is to make the film seem busy while the backdrop overwhelms the story, which never takes off.

The screenplay by Tracy Oliver (Girls Trip) doesn’t help the actors. Natasha talks a tough game about love, then suddenly we see her fantasy of a future with Daniel: They kiss, they get married, they have a family. Where did that come from? If Shahidi overplays the subdued aspect of Natasha, that’s understandable for a while. She's weighed down by her family’s impending departure, a secret she reveals to Daniel only toward the end of the day as she heads off to see the immigration lawyer.

The lawyer is played by John Leguizamo, whose scenes bring out the passionate hopes of each character, and also bring the actors to life. The pic could have used more of him, and much more of Natasha and Daniel’s immigrant stories, which at least would have added genuine topical interest. Here we get a mention of how ICE agents grabbed Natasha’s father from the kitchen where he worked, a point never brought up again.

Russo-Young’s approach is to use a lot of close-ups, sometimes of her actors and sometimes of strangers, including a little boy on the subway, and — hammering the melting-pot theme — the face of the Statue of Liberty. Really. Even by generic standards, The Sun Is Also a Star is simply misbegotten.

Production companies: Alloy Entertainment, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Warner Bros.
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Cast: Yara Shahidi, Charles Melton, Jake Choi, Camrus Johnson, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Miriam A. Hyman, John Leguizamo
Director: Ry Russo-Young
Screenwriter: Tracy Oliver
Producers: Leslie Morgenstein, Elysa Koplovitz Dutton
Director of photography: Autumn Durald Arkapaw
Production designer: Wynn Thomas
Costume designer: Deirdre Elizabeth Govan
Editor: Joe Landauer
Music: Herdis Stefansdottir

94 minutes