“I thought it would take me a lifetime to understand the human heart,” says Natasha Kingsley (Yara Shahidi), a montage of New York City playing underneath her voiceover. “All it took was a single day.” Given the placement of that line of dialogue, this means it takes roughly three minutes for someone watching The Sun Is Also a Star, the adaptation of Nicola Yoon’s 2016 YA novel, to roll their eyes. This is the first time you’ll find yourself rotating those orbs a full 360-degrees in exasperation, and given that the movie matches its young couple’s earnestness and hopeless romanticism step by puppy-love step, it won’t be the last. But for all of this melodrama’s talk of destiny as a divine matchmaker and other such hooey, there’s an intimate sense of everyday life embedded into the amore-conquers-all story that helps counteract the cosmic slop. These kids’ heads are in the stars. The movie, however, largely prefers to keep its feet on the ground.
And given the heartstring-attack premise — not to mention the torn-from-today’s-headlines timeliness — the approach is appreciated. Natasha, you see, is the daughter of immigrants, and a random ICE raid has resulted in the whole Kinglsey clan being forcibly deported to Jamaica. (“You’ll be fine,” a case worker tells her. “Everything is irie there.”) She has one day left to rectify the situation, so she talks her way into getting a sit down with a lawyer who might be able to help. While standing in Grand Central Station, she’s spotted by Daniel Bae (Charles Melton, a.k.a. Reggie from Riverdale), a Korean-American young man who’s on his way to a make-or-break interview to secure a spot at Dartmouth. He noticed her because she’s wearing a jacket that says “Deus Ex Machina” on the back — the same phrase he randomly scribbled on a piece of paper that very morning! When life hands you a sign that on-the-nose, how can you ignore it?
So Daniel feels compelled to follow her out of a subway station when he spots her again, and ends up saving her life. He thinks their meeting is fate. She believes that if you can’t prove something with the scientific method, forget it, buddy. Then both of their appointments get postponed. He suggests they hang out for the afternoon. Just give him an hour or two, he pleads, and he can show her love is real.
You can already feel those eyes heading heavenward again — which is why it’s a good thing this film is blessed with Ry Russo-Young behind the camera. A filmmaker with a background in offbeat character studies and slightly cracked indie dramas — see: Orphans, You Won’t Miss Me, Nobody Walks — she has a knack for left-field choices and a great feel for filming people. (Even her previous foray into young-adult cinema, Before I Fall, is not your average teen handwringer.) Which is why you get a swooning teen romance where the vibe is a lot more Linklater Jr. than John Green, with the twosome trading philosophical ideals and wandering around a vibrant NYC filled with midtown planetariums, Koreatown karaoke joints, Harlem beauty shops and pulsating life on every corner.
She also trusts the audience enough to let long silences speak volumes and exchanges play out without music offering easy emotional cues. Her street-scene game is strong. Occasionally, we get tangential lessons on the concept of multiverses and Korea’s domination of the wig industry in the 1960s. Natasha’s story of her parents meeting is rendered in a wonderful series of snapshots. Russo-Young later gives us an entire alternate future for her heroes in the span of a song — The Shondells’ “Crimson and Clover,” for those of you playing along at home — that’s just short of breathtaking.
The fact that this flurry of grace notes and moments that feel caught off the cuff keeps so much of The Sun Is Also a Star afloat for so long is an accomplishment, given that the material itself fluctuates between feather-light and leaden. Shahidi, a clutch player on Black-ish and its underrated spin-off Young-ish, does what she can to sell the urgency of Natasha’s emergency maneuvers and eventual mutually smitten state. Melton makes you believe this guy would throw away his future for true love, even if he has a harder time convincing you his nice-guy character isn’t a closet stalker at times. Both of them are fine actors; both of them seem unsure of where to pitch their performances in places, and the result can sometime seem uneven at best. A subplot about Daniel’s rivalry with a bad-boy brother (Jake Choi) might as well be tacked on with pushpins. Even the timebomb factor that keeps things ticking — will Natasha keep her family from being undeservedly kicked out of their country? — feels more like an obstacle for these insanely photogenic lovers than a statement.
Of course, the idea that this topic is being talked about at all in a studio movie, much less one designed for Friday-night googleplex consumption, feels quietly revolutionary in its own way. Ditto the actor-of-color leads getting the chance to explore the first- and second-generation immigrant experience while still being handed roles that don’t begin and end with that singular notion. There’s such beautiful artisanal touches that Russo-Young adds to what could have been a standard YA-lit flick and so much that the actors do with scenes of people just talking that you can’t write it off. And there are too many dramatic moments that flatline when they should spike, too many plot turns that feel false and too much reliance on “coincidence” as some higher-power string-yanking to say it completely works. Mind you, this is before the film adds a coda that will make even the most ardent believer in romance go “wait, seriously?” Some stars burn brighter than you think they will — and can’t help but burn out in the end.