Disney+’s “Stargirl” had a familiar formula effective in cinematic adaptations of YA novels. The simplicity of a free-spirited young girl, whose angelic voice and talents for playing the ukulele changed the lives of a small-town city and helped a young high school cynic realize that there’s more to life than just being a wallflower. Sure, the youth navigating love while finding an identity isn’t anything original for a coming-of-age film. Still, Grace VanderWaal’s performance struck a chord that had everyone believe in magic. So now, the sequel “Hollywood Stargirl” puts the title character front and center as she chases her dreams while also finding her voice in the adventure called life.
When Stargirl’s mom, Ana (Judy Greer), accepts a costume designer job in LA, the two relocate to sunny California. Though Ana refashions the constant moves from city to city as an adventure of a lifetime, it doesn’t offer the eccentric teenager the opportunities to experience stable friendships. She doesn’t want her whole life to be an adventure and wants to get to know people. Still, Stargirl supports her mother because they only have each other – and Cinnamon, Stargirl’s pet rat. So, to comfort her, Ana promises Stargirl that she will finish her senior year in LA.
From small-town girl to big city dreamer, Stargirl not only has a chance to explore a city that glows with infinite possibilities, but she can also finally be a kid for the very first time. Once they arrive, she quickly makes an assortment of quirky new friends and artists, including aspiring filmmaking brothers Evan (Elijah Richardson) and Terrell (Tyrel Jackson Williams); Mr. Mitchell (Judd Hirsch), one of Stargirl’s neighbors; and Roxanne Martel (Uma Thurman), a musician Stargirl admires and encounters on her journey.
Set during the summer before her senior year of high school, Stargirl navigates her way through LA, seemingly without a care in the world. Whenever she isn’t taking the bus to visit her mom on set or exploring the various flea markets buying up new clothes and tiny cacti, she gets acquainted with her new friends around her quaint apartment complex. When Evan discovers Stargirl’s singing talents, he convinces her to be the lead in the movie that he wrote and his brother is directing. However, it’s a bit of a struggle. No one can reach Stargirl because she doesn’t have a cellphone. They’re filming on an iPhone with just the primary lens. Tyrell is the only one in the group who can drive. And they don’t have a piano for their song, and they have nowhere to record them. But as Stargirl starts to get to know her neighbors and her idols through empathy, they begin to reach out and help her in unexpected ways.
The entire process of making a movie sounds like a foreign language to Stargirl. She doesn’t quite grasp the concepts of sizzle reels or understand why lunch breaks during film production are in the evening. The responsibilities of a studio producer beyond anyone, even Mr. Mitchell. But the film also offers a tiny bit of commentary amid its explanation of the filmmaking lingo. One of the scenes sees Evan taking Stargirl to watch “Cooley High” at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery because it’s one of his favorite films celebrating black joy. It’s a rare moment where we get to see how the love of film affects people of color, and how they want to continue to share that with others through their storytelling.
And Stargirl is open to learning about all of it. There isn’t a moment in the film where she expresses any disinterest. Stargirl wants to learn more. But she is also attentive to others’ needs – as noted by her earmuff gift to Mr. Mitchell when he complains that she’s too noisy. As she learns her way around LA and how to make movies, she also has a way of teaching others about retro technology, like tape cassettes. Above all, she also learns a lot about herself and what it means to achieve a dream.
Because Stargirl’s personality is so magnetic and her empathy is so profound, everyone within her social circle inadvertently help Evan and Terrell make their YA movie. Stargirl and Elijah’s audition at the small town local club where Roxanne hides convinces the reclusive music artist to help the young artists produce a new song. Even Mr. Mitchell can’t help but warm up to Stargirl by giving her a vintage camera that she sells, with his blessing, so they can buy the lens for the iPhone they use to film their sizzle reel. Yeah, these acts of kindness and paying it forward sound cheesy on the surface, but it’s hard to deny their effectiveness. A cynical person would immediately dismiss everything as a narrative convenience to help move the story. But the truth of it all is that we need something like this to shine a light in the cold darkness that seems to be constantly enveloping us on a near daily basis.
But the mystery of the manic pixie dream girl lost its luster. VanderWaal has such an infectious personality that we can help be gravitate towards it. Once again, her performance elevates during the music-driven sequences that create enough joy to make you dance or soothe the soul with lullaby melody beats. And her duet with Richardson for “Figure It Out” reflects much of the film’s dream-like atmosphere while also feeling overly romantic and uplifting.
While the first Stargirl positioned the title character as a device to help her counterpart protagonist come out of his shell, which gave her less agency and identity despite her name being in the title, thankfully, “Hollywood Stargirl” is different. Even director Julia Hart, using a script she co-wrote with Justin Horowitz, made it a point to tell fans that Stargirl is her own person and that this is her story to tell.
Though the idea of a manic teenage pixie coming to ambitious artists looking for their big break sounds more like a fleeting dream fantasy than reality, “Hollywood Stargirl” still retains much of the down-to-earth charms and youthful ambition. This time, the only difference is that it is against the city of stars that shine so brightly. And returning cinematographer Bryce Fortner capture those moments of these kids manifesting their dreams of filmmaking and recreating some romance through the soft, warm orange glows of sunsets and urban lights. It just feels safe and secure, like everything will be alright no matter the outcome. Because, in the end, it’s about the experience Stargirl and her friends shared making the movie.
And editors Shayar Bhansali and Tracey Wadmore-Smith weave much of Stargirl’s journey, the film’s production phases, and recording sessions to create something that feels ethereal yet so down-to-earth because of VanderWaal’s quiet but lovely performance and the rest of the cast’s sparkling energy. Thurman also shines as Roxanne Martel, whose attitude embodies that just because some dreams may not look like we thought they would, doesn’t mean they aren’t living them. It’s quite a message to live by and gives hope to those who have given up on their dreams.
“Hollywood Stargirl’s” lack of conflict doesn’t provide much of a story other than Stargirl helping Evan and Terrell achieve their dreams while also discovering her identity and a sense of home. The artistry and passion of filmmaking are genuine. And the entire process of all of it is fun to watch. So much so that you can’t help but root for these characters to win.