A lot of great art has been made about random but life-changing interactions between total strangers. Richard Linklater’s ’90s indie romance Before Sunrise is just one example of what can happen when you set two attractive young people on a collision course and follow them as they spent a full day walking and talking. (Does anyone else love a good bottle episode?) The thing about this type of setup, however, is that it seems to work best when the stakes are low and things are made to feel more like cosmic coincidence rather than F-A-T-E. Get too ambitious and heavy-handed with your storytelling and you end up with something decidedly less than stellar. Like Crash.
Ry Russo-Young’s new YA romance The Sun Is Also a Star aims high but falls toward the middle of the spectrum, weighed down by an overcooked script that insists on telling rather than showing. From the moment we meet the two teenage leads, their personality types are underlined in bold: Natasha (Yara Shahidi) is the pragmatic, logical one who doesn’t believe in love (and wears a jacket that reads “deus ex machina”) and wants to be a scientist; Daniel (Charles Melton), on the other hand, is the romantic, earnest one who believes everything happens for a reason (and wants to be a poet, despite his parents’ plans for him to become a doctor). They meet by chance on a pivotal day for both — Daniel’s got his big Dartmouth interview, and Natasha’s trying to stop her family from being deported back to Jamaica.
Things don’t exactly go as planned for either high schooler, and they thus find themselves with a free afternoon and a bet to settle: Is it possible to fall in love with a stranger? The resulting trip around New York City could have been a charming and moving two-hander (especially given the timely political subject matter, which I hope we’ll see tackled in a better film), but the script by Tracy Oliver (Girls Trip, Little) doesn’t allow us to really get to know either character. We get intricate backstories on Daniel, Natasha, and their respective families via illustrated voiceovers, but clunky, repetitive dialogue — here’s looking at you, Daniel — keep the whole thing from really coming to life. Because of this, while Melton and Shahidi are capable actors, we never feel much of a spark between them.
Which isn’t to say there aren’t things to admire about A Sun Is Also a Star. It’s refreshing to see a studio make a big film that casts two non-white characters as the romantic leads rather than relegating them to supporting status (even though it’s frustrating as hell that this is still rare in 2019). I also really appreciated the attention to detail in regard to the immigrant experience — even small things like Daniel’s mother speaking with him in Korean when they’re at home, or Daniel’s brother expressing the frustrations that can come with being caught between two cultures when you’re first-generation. That’s really a testament to author Nicola Yoon, who drew from her own family experiences (she was born in Jamaica and raised in NYC) when writing the source material.
It’s also lovely to see New York captured by a native New Yorker who gets exactly what it is that makes the city so magical and why it’s become home to so many people from so many backgrounds. There really is something fateful about meeting anyone in a city so densely packed, and Russo-Young and cinematographer Autumn Durald Arkapaw emphasize this by juxtaposing sweeping shots of the city skyline and bustling shots of real city streets with tighter crops of their teenage leads basking in the glow of a quiet afternoon spent getting to know one another. Unfortunately these more down-to-earth moments all feel like a glimpse into another (better) film.