Stargirl tells an empowering story of non-conformity, but falls short on character development

The film navigates what it means to remain true to yourself while in a relationship

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Image Courtesy of Walt Disney Company

By: Michelle Young, Staff Writer

If there’s one thing being stuck in isolation is giving us, it’s the chance to get through all the movies we’ve been meaning to watch. Stargirl, a Disney coming-of-age film released in March 2020, was one of those movies for me. It follows the story of Leo Borlock, played by Graham Verchere, who moves to Arizona with his mother after his father passes away. There he meets quirky and mysterious Stargirl Caraway, played by Grace VanderWaal. Leo is obviously fascinated with Stargirl, watching her from afar and stealing glances at her odd mannerisms. It’s apparent that they will quickly begin their adolescent relationship. However, unlike most coming-of-age movies, the film doesn’t tell a love story — it tells a story about staying true to your individuality. 

Leo grew up with a love for unique attire, such as ties with porcupines on them, but this love is quickly tamed after he is bullied for it and he learns to blend in. He tones down his wardrobe, wearing only subdued colours, like navy blues, browns and greys, and becomes consciously quiet in an attempt to avoid drawing attention to himself. It’s how he survives the harsh world. Then enters Stargirl, wearing colourful patterns, singing to everyone with her ukelele, and carrying around her pet rat. 

Stargirl’s character is a bit overly eccentric. I can’t imagine anyone singing “Happy Birthday” to their crush on the first day of school and tracing back neighbourhood tragedies to send people anonymous gifts. She ultimately comes off as a character only made to teach our protagonist a lesson, acting as a gateway for Leo to crack open his shell. In some ways though, she’s refreshing; Stargirl holds genuine kindness in her heart, and that’s a wonderful lesson for us. She ultimately stays true to herself until the end, making the best decision for her relationship with Leo.

The film portrays their connection simply as a rush of emotions. They are happy in each other’s company and, at first, oblivious to the world around them. It seems as though it is only because Stargirl is so different from anyone he’s met before that Leo is dating her, without considering her true individuality. This is painfully clear when he begins questioning why she wouldn’t simply tone her personality down for the sake of fitting in, as he did. Leo’s character would have been immensely stronger if he hadn’t pressured Stargirl to fit in, if he didn’t need her to show him the value in authenticity. 

The fundamental issue I have with the movie is that it is ultimately Stargirl, and not Leo himself, who pushes him to understand the value of individuality. It shouldn’t be up to her to demonstrate what it means to be yourself. Stargirl is more than a teacher, but in the film, that’s all she serves as. At Leo’s urging, Stargirl dulls herself down, reverts her name to “Susan,” and blends in. And Leo actually appears happy about it. It isn’t until Stargirl realizes that she’s unhappy with this new version of herself that she once again embraces her eccentric personality. 

SPOILER ALERT: 

Stargirl goes back to being herself and essentially forces Leo to do the same. She arranges for him to sing at the school dance, which sets up a space for him to face his peers and gives him the chance to prove he doesn’t care what others think. Upon hearing that he’ll be a guest singer, Leo only takes the stage because he’s expected to do so. If it wasn’t for Stargirl, Leo would stay boring. Why couldn’t his character simply develop as an individual and change in a way that didn’t require Stargirl to put in the effort? 

Still, Leo’s revelations come too late, because once he embraces the porcupine-tie side of his personality, she’s gone — literally vanishing into the night. 

Stargirl has its moments, but it would have been better executed if Leo came to this realization on his own. Then again, the film doesn’t want its audience to be like Leo. It doesn’t want to show them a relationship where one couldn’t fully embrace the other, and where the connection is built solely on the idea of what someone else could be. Instead, Stargirl urges its audience to chase after nonconformity; to never change your personality for anyone or anything, and as cliché as it sounds — to be yourself.