On paper, The Sun Is Also A Star looked like the kind of movie I’d totally fall for. A hopeless romantic meets a hard-nosed realist, and together they fall in love while making New York City their playground. I’m a sucker for an even half-decent romance, and as a long-time New Yorker can’t get enough of seeing love stories spilled across our boroughs. Plus, this one was based on a YA novel by Nicola Yoon, the author behind Everything Everything, an adaptation that had me swooning. Bonus: it stars Grown-ish’s Yara Shahidi and Riverdale’s Charles Melton, two performers who’ve shown a compelling charisma on their respective series. But unfortunately, The Sun Is Also A Star fell far short of my expectations, offering a romance that never manages to shine.
Directed by Before I Fall helmer Ry Russo-Young, The Sun Is Also A Star begins with 17-year-old Natasha Kingsley (Shahidi), an aspiring scientist who fears her life and career ambitions will be derailed because of her parents’ impending deportation. Tomorrow, her family will return to Jamaica, which is technically her homeland but not her home. To stay in the New York she loves, Natasha plans to spend her last day meeting with caseworkers, lawyers, and whoever else she must to get a reversal on the deportation order. But these plans are derailed when a hit-and-run meet-cute introduces her to Daniel Bae (Charles Melton). Also 17, he’s on his way to a college interview that could put him on the path to being a doctor, which would make his Korean immigrant parents very proud. But secretly, Daniel dreams of being a writer. And when he spots Natasha in Grand Central Station wearing a bomber jacket with “deus ex machina” embroidered on it, he believes he’s found his muse or his soul mate or maybe both. There’s just one (more) problem, Natasha doesn’t believe in love. So Daniel pleads for one day to change her mind. Between appointments, these two tumble through Chinatown, to a black hair care shop in Harlem, to a karaoke room, and a riverside city park, along the way finding a connection they can’t deny.
It’s an intriguing premise: one day to find love and your path. It’s exactly the kind of high-stakes juvenile drama I look for in YA! But despite the stakes and the characters’ “now or never” attitudes, there’s no sense of urgency to the film. Though plenty of the dialogue involves appointments—and should thereby set up a ticking clock tension—there’s no sense of time as the characters stroll from one scenic neighborhood to another. Perhaps that’s because of Russo-Young’s heavy reliance on B-roll, which shows people on the streets, skyscrapers, and other NYC cliches to give a quick sense of an area instead of showing her leads interacting with the area. Perhaps it’s that the film is cluttered with montage sequences that feel like PowerPoint presentations. There’s one about how Natasha’s parents met, one about how Daniel’s parents came to own a wig shop in Harlem, one about the universe itself. And for each, we’re not shown these characters talking to someone, but instead, a sizzle reel-like edit or planets, or a black couple laughing, or archival footage of wig-making factories while a calm voiceover plays. If done in a zippy way that mirrors the kind of explainer vids that often go viral online, this device might have given energy—if not urgency—to the film. But as it is, these sections feel tangential and cringingly old fashioned in a story of two modern teens.
The bigger problem; however, is that I never bought into Natasha and Daniel’s romance. Yes, Shahidi and Melton are beautiful, and it should be easy to believe they’d fall for each other. But the pair shares no chemistry onscreen. At best, they seem bemused by each other. Sadly, the charms they’ve shown on TV don’t translate here. In Grown-ish and Black-ish, Shahidi brought a liveliness even to eye-rolls. Playing a character who sneers at romance and natters on about the scientific method, she’s lost her spark and comes off as bored and boring. As for Melton, he brought heat to Riverdale as smirking bad boy Reggie Mantle. Here, he’s sanitized as a sheepish good guy. And the one scene where he’s let loose to attempt alluring is so bizarre it comes off as creepy instead.
Daniel takes Natasha to a karaoke parlor, a smooth move for seduction as it’s a private place you can rent by the hour! And he will woo her into a hot-and-heavy make-out session by performing a love song. But the song chosen, his rendition, and the way it’s shot all left me cringing. The song is “Crimson and Clover,” the moody 1968 from Tommy James & The Shondells. Now, while the lyrics about falling for a girl you barely know makes thematic sense, I was scratching my head wondering why this would be the song a teenager in 2019 would choose. Beyond that, Melton performs it in a breathy monotone that feels a bit eerie and is only made more so by how Russo-Young shoots him. In close-up, with no light hitting his pupils, he looks dead-eyed and unnerving, like he’s about to ask Natasha to put the lotion in the basket.
So, there’s the total lack of tension, the DOA romance, and the mysterious absence of its leads’ charisma. Plenty of reason for me to not recommend bothering with The Sun Is Also A Star. But there’s one more bit that I just can’t go without mentioning, because days later it’s still irking me. Early on in the film, Daniel is on the subway when the train stalls. This happens in New York. Often. And it’s very annoying because you’re stuck between stations, probably without a phone signal, and with no way of knowing if this will be a couple of minutes as train traffic ahead of you clears up, or if you’ll be here for hours, because that too is a thing that happens! But no worries, movie New Yorkers, because an MTA worker has come over the loudspeaker system. He won’t give an update on the train status, but he will give you an unsolicited life lesson that involves a 9/11 anecdote!
I wish I weren’t in such shock that I was able to scribble down what the unseen train conductor says over the loudspeaker. But the gist of it was, ‘Hey, I know it’s a bummer to be delayed. But you don’t know what fate has in store. This one time my friend was stuck on a train, and that saved his life because he was headed to work. At the World Trade Center. On 9/11.’ Then he concludes—and this I did write down—“Always remember, open your heart up to destiny!”
I sat in a New York screening room with my jaw dropped. This scene is outrageous on several levels. First, it’s insane to imagine that when a train has been stalled for any reason that the conductor would come on and casually invoke the most traumatic event to hit New York City. You don’t casually bring up 9/11 in an enclosed space where people might feel trapped, because they might well panic or at the very least be pretty peeved that you blithely decided to dig into a conversation that is raw and tricky for millions of Americans but ESPECIALLY New Yorkers. Nonetheless, the straphangers in The Sun Is Also A Star nod thoughtfully, because sure fine whatever. But beyond how inappropriate and unrealistic this incident is, IT DOESN’T EVEN MAKE SENSE! Like “Always remember, open your heart up to destiny.” Or what? Or you die in a terrorist attack? Being stuck on the train is not a choice. The guy in this story didn’t open his heart to destiny, he dumb-lucked out of dying in an unpredictable catastrophe. And what does any of that have to do with a teenage boy trying to woo a girl? But more importantly, what does abruptly bringing up 9/11 without warning in a seemingly feel-good movie do to audiences? In my case, it made me seethe until my outrage was eventually worn down by boredom.
The Sun Is Also A Star opens May 17.
Header Image Source: Warner Bros.