‘Hollywood Stargirl’ Review: A Kind-Hearted Plea for the Way Filmmaking Could Be
Don’t let the name fool you: Stargirl isn’t looking to break into the Hollywood stratosphere. Mostly, she’s looking for some friends beyond her harried mom and adorable pet rat Cinnamon. For a gal as charming as Stargirl, as good-hearted and caring as she is, that shouldn’t be too much to ask, right? In the world of “Hollywood Stargirl,” a brightly lit and candy-colored place that verges on the fairy tale — if only because everyone who populates it is also charming, good-hearted, and caring — it’s not, with some caveats, the kind happily wrapped up in a fanciful package.
Filmmaker Julia Hart follows her first “Stargirl” feature film — a 2020 Disney+ outing based on Jerry Spinelli’s bestselling YA novel of the same name — with a suitably quirky and sweet sequel that builds on the Stargirl mythos with nothing but good intentions. Picking up soon after the events of the first “Stargirl” concluded (quick catch-up: Stargirl, played in both films by Grace VanderWaal, is an offbeat sweetheart who encourages people to embrace their true selves, a concept that went a bit topside in her former American high school, a place where individuality goes to die), “Hollywood Stargirl” finds our heroine again setting out on a new adventure.
This time, it’s Hollywood, as her costume designer mom Ana (Judy Greer, a welcome new addition to the fledgling franchise) has landed a gig on a bonafide movie, necessitating yet another move for the heartbroken Stargirl. She asks but one thing of her addled mama: can we stay in one place for at least a year? Ana acquiesces, and soon the duo are moving into the kind of lush, Spanish-style apartment building that would make “Melrose Place” residents jealous. (Even more fantastic: this is a version of LA where people can walk places and Stargirl’s resistance to getting a cell phone is wacky, not unsafe.)
Inevitably, it’s populated by the people who will soon form Stargirl’s latest band of devotees, including dreamy Evan (Elijah Richardson) and crotchety downstairs neighbor Mr. Mitchell (Judd Hirsch, earning his keep simply by the way he says “Hollywood Stargirl”). When Evan overhears Stargirl’s singing, he’s a goner. Does Stargirl want to be friends? And maybe also star in the movie he’s trying to make with his big-talking brother Terrell (Tyrel Jackson Williams)? It’s Hollywood, after all!
But this Hollywood isn’t the same beast we’re used to seeing on the big screen, and presumably a very different one than Hart and her co-writer and husband Jordan Horowitz are used to navigating in order to make their own films. The big difference: Stargirl (and her friends) are possessed of talent, good intentions, and better manners, and while their success never seems assured, “Hollywood Stargirl” is a feel-good family film for a reason: the good people win. In Hollywood, that’s an offbeat choice.
That’s not to say that everyone in “Hollywood Stargirl” is a big-hearted gem. Ana has to deal with a jerky director who threatens her career, while Stargirl’s unexpected mentor (Uma Thurman playing a one-hit-wonder folk singer turned big-time music producer) is beset by a bout of imposter syndrome that sometimes turns her into kind of a meanie. But still, those problems only fuel Stargirl and her new dream of making a cute musical that sounds a bit like “La La Land Lite” and that — truly, only in the movies — might actually rocket her, Evan, and Terrell to real fame based on merit.
Spinelli’s hit YA novel did spawn its own sequel, “Love, Stargirl,” in which his irrepressible heroine moved to a small town in Pennsylvania (Hollywood, it ain’t) and worked her magic on a similarly disparate group of friends and neighbors. Hart and Horowitz’s choice to take Stargirl straight to Hollywood does diverge from that original vision, but it also more firmly establishes the character as just as much a product of the duo’s dreams and imagination as Spinelli himself. And VanderWaal, yet another example of Hart and Horowitz’s incredible knack for casting, plays her in such a way that it’s impossible to imagine another Stargirl, in Pennsylvania and beyond.
And yet “Hollywood Stargirl,” for all its charm, doesn’t quite hang together as a complete story. It feels like an episode, a vignette, a tiny slice of Stargirl’s remarkable life suddenly turned into a filmmaking parable she’d likely balk at. Funnily enough, that sensibility makes the case for Stargirl to become a TV star, to spawn her own series of weekly adventures. But “Hollywood Stargirl” has dug its star a bit of a hole: now she’s a movie star. Where else in the world can she possibly go? With a spirit like Stargirl’s, we can only hope it’s somewhere new.
“Hollywood Stargirl” starts streaming on Disney+ on Friday, June 3.
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