“The Sun Is Also a Star” is a beautiful looking film. The TV stars Yara Shahidi of “grown-ish” and Charles Melton of “Riverdale” are beautiful. New York City is beautiful. Even the MTA is (kind of) beautiful.
Director Ry Russo-Young’s film is shot by cinematographer Autumn Durald with such precision it’s impossible not to get a little swoony over the fact that the filmmaker clearly did not phone it in for this adaptation of a popular young adult book.
That makes it all the more frustrating, then, that the driving engine behind the film — a whirlwind 24-hour romance — is contrived, underwhelming and perhaps worst of all, unconvincing. And both parties involved in said romance have other things going on in their lives that are much more compelling than their love-at-first-sight. (Shahidi’s character most of all.)
Shahidi plays Natasha Kingsley, a high school student whose family is facing imminent deportation to Jamaica. Her parents immigrated to the U.S. when she was young. She considers New York her home, so much so that she’s decided to fight the system against all odds and to the last second, even though her parents are resigned to leaving.
We meet her on the day before their scheduled deportation, as she rushes to a meeting at the immigration office and then, in desperation, to another “last shot” plea with a lawyer who has been known to do miracles. Running around the city, she’s also on a reluctant farewell tour, taking an extra beat here and there to really absorb her surroundings — like stopping to gaze up wistfully at the ceiling of Grand Central Terminal.
It’s there she catches the eye of one Daniel Bae (Melton), a high school student on his way to an alumni interview for Dartmouth that he doesn’t want to go to. He’s feeling stifled by his Korean immigrant parents, who decided long ago that he’d be a doctor, when he really just wants to be a poet (seriously). You know this because in his room he has a newspaper clipping of an article about Maya Angelou and an Emily Dickinson book on his shelf. He also, with strained plaintiveness, scribbles “Deus Ex Machina” in a notebook.
This is important because Natasha, whom he insists he spotted in the crowd not just because she is gorgeous but because “no one ever looks up,” is wearing a jacket with the words “Deus Ex Machina” on the back. They must be soul mates. So, in the grand movie tradition of “it’s not stalking if she’s into it,” he does what any lovelorn high school poet who’d rather be doing anything but interviewing for Dartmouth would do: He follows her.
A fairly dramatic opportunity arises for Daniel to introduce himself and have an excuse to hang around her to make sure she’s OK. He even works up the courage to propose that he can make her fall in love with him in a day. Why she goes along with it is a bit of a mystery. Maybe it’s Daniel’s dreaminess, or a way of compartmentalizing or distracting herself from the reality of deportation (and having to pack and help her family), but she lets herself be reckless, and the two set off on an adventure in their city that she at least knows has an expiration date.
The film wants to be a kind of “Before Sunrise” with a dash of “Serendipity.” Sadly, notwithstanding the evident care that the filmmaker took, quality-wise it veers more toward the “Serendipity” side of things with a lot of contrivances presented like fate.
Shahidi, despite the implausibility of her character actually agreeing to hang out with this handsome stranger, is really wonderful as the skeptical, determined Natasha, and is a clear movie star in the making. But the love story is a hard sell. Melton is not a good fit for Daniel. I never really bought into him as the aspiring poet/romantic he keeps claiming to be. It would certainly be interesting if he was supposed to be a kind of poseur using those markers as a way to woo women, but this film is too earnest for that. The sparks are few in this labored romance.
Also, I’m pretty sure he can study poetry at Dartmouth.