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Review: ‘Stargirl’ benefits from having an actual star girl

Graham Verchere and singer-songwriter Grace VanderWaal in the movie ‘Stargirl’
Graham Verchere and singer-songwriter Grace VanderWaal in the movie “Stargirl.”
(Disney+)

A somewhat introverted high-school boy is doing OK. Then he meets a possibly magical girl, and he’s doing great.

In the Disney+ teen romance “Stargirl” (based on Jerry Spinelli’s novel), Leo (Graham Verchere) and Stargirl (“America’s Got Talent” winner, rising singer-songwriter Grace VanderWaal) find each other — and themselves. As you can guess from her name, she’s a free spirit whose infectious positivity wins over the school and especially Leo, who has been nursing the wound of his father’s death much of his young life. But what will happen when her individuality puts her at odds with the other kids and even her adoring boyfriend?

The story is struck from a familiar template: inactive protagonist, dead parent, worries about popularity, a regional competition looming. But the film distinguishes itself from there, largely due to the direction of “Fast Color’s” Julia Hart. It’s a Disney movie, with music-video sequences showcasing VanderWaal’s ethereal singing, but it’s shot more like an indie by cinematographer Bryce Fortner (“Ingrid Goes West”), with found light and warm colors.

Verchere and VanderWaal have some chemistry — Verchere, a kind of less-neurotic Michael Cera, also has a nice singing voice. VanderWaal acquits herself well enough in her film debut. The relationships and situations aren’t deeply explored, but it’s not that kind of movie. Does it effectively deliver its message of embracing uniqueness in oneself and others? Sure. It’s pretty nail-on-the-head.

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For grown-ups, there are pleasures to be found in a well-curated song score (including a lovely cover of Big Star’s “Thirteen”); for younger viewers, it’s a pseudo-fantasy about letting your freak flag fly.

‘Stargirl’
Rated: PG, for mild thematic elements

Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes

Playing: Available March 13 on Disney+

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Trailer for “Stargirl,” starring Graham Verchere and Grace VanderWaal, on Disney+.


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