Synopsis – A hopeless romantic ambivalent about his future in medical school falls for a hard-luck young woman who doesn’t believe in love.
My Take – Is it just me who has noticed that the cinemas haven’t shown a really a satisfying YA romance film in sometime? Sure, Netflix gave us the wonderful To All the Boys I’ve Loved last summer, but again NOT in cinemas.
And what is with this obsessive trend of making one of the lead characters die in the final act? By a medical condition, an accident, or simply while performing a heroic act. Do the younger demographic really prefer a tragic ending now days? Thankfully, that case doesn’t apply here, in the sense, no one dies here.
Based on the best-selling YA book from Nicola Yoon (Everything, Everything), who traded in a secure job in the financial sector to become a novelist after the birth of her child, of the same name, is in fact a typical film of the genre where two unlikely people meet by chance and fall in love, all in one day.
However what sets this apart, is that it centers on two people of color and, as a bonus, thankfully doesn’t involve the trope of one or both of them being terminally ill. Clearly adapted to bank on those hopeless romantics that love giggling over those cheesy and heartwarming love stories, this is a film which needs you to invest in the enjoyable chemistry shared by the leads. Clearly because other than that there is not much to invest in.
Here, director Ry Russo-Young (Before I Fall) and writer Tracy Oliver (Girls Trip), navigate and enhance the story by strolling into the world of first generation immigrants, the fear of deportation in the current political climate, and the pressures of succeeding to make your parents proud, all in order to make the romance feel more influential and charming, but if only those enhancements had played a larger role, this little film might really have had something to say, and not just roll over whenever the hard topics came into play.
Loosely based on the courtship of author Nicola Yoon and her husband, the story follows Natasha Kingsley (Yara Shahidi), a New York City high school student, who after a chance meeting with Daniel Bae (Charles Melton), spends the next 24 hours with him.
Being an aspirational data-driven aspiring scientist, Natasha thinks love is just something humans made up to give meaning to their hormonal impulses, but Daniel feels otherwise, and believes their meeting was meant to be. And suggests they try the ‘36 Questions that lead to Love’ formula to make her fall in love with him, hence providing the scientific proof that love is real.
However, unknown to Daniel, Natasha has only a single day left in New York, as her Jamaican-born family is set to be deported the next day, as her father’s undocumented status was discovered during a random ICE raid of the restaurant where he worked, as a result they are being forced to leave the city they’ve called home for the past nine years.
While her family continues to pack at home, Natasha refuses to give up, and has been scrambling around, pursuing immigration officials and pro bono lawyers, desperately trying to find some way to re-open their case.
Meanwhile, Daniel is also going through his own set of troubles, as his Korean immigrant parents have pressurized him into interviewing for a medicine position in Dartmouth, despite his artistic aspirations, all so that he can add a shine to the long history of their family name. Together in one day, they must realize that there’s more to life than just succeeding, but also about finding love and dreaming.
On paper, this YA romance is effectively developed and even its most saccharine moments are lovely and well-handled. While this is a film about a YA romance, it is also laced with some common issues that give the story a driving force. With a heavy focus on the current political issues regarding immigration, and shedding some light on interracial culture, it’s refreshing to see that the common tropes seen in YA romance films is sidelined, and a different approach is taken.
It makes a good attempt at an intimate look into the lives of modern-day immigrants living in the Big Apple but I wish that the film could’ve explored more into their situations since it felt like, again, the script barely scratched the surface on their stories.
However, in the film’s most competent scenes, director Ry Russo-Young expands the film’s perspective with narrated montages that delve into Daniel’s and Natasha’s personal and cultural roots. Natasha ruminates on what it means to be an American, and shares tangents about Carl Sagan and multiverses.
Daniel explains how his parents decided to blend Korean and American traditions while naming their two sons, and offers a fascinating look at how Koreans came to have a monopoly on the black hair care industry.
She makes sure that this is also a beautiful looking film, and reminds us how beautiful New York City is. Here the 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.
Unfortunately for the film, its drive force, the whirlwind 24-hour romance, is contrived, underwhelming and perhaps worst of all, unconvincing. And sometimes, over-plotted and occasionally a little creepy, as Daniel’s steadfast belief in destiny translates into some uncomfortably assertive wooing. It doesn’t help that Melton is nearly a decade older than his teenage co-star, and very much reads as an adult man on screen.
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.
While the ticking clock of Natasha’s potential deportation is always there, it only pops into the story every now and then, and it’s forgotten when it’s not being explicitly dealt with. It’s hard to remember to be worried about the future when the characters largely are not. This is fine if you’re invested in the love story, but for everybody else, this is just going to be an incredibly slow film.
An attempt to add more tension comes from Charles’ own ticking clock, a college interview to get into the Ivy League school of “his” choice, which he’s not sure he really want to attend. However, when put up against Natasha’s pending deportation, that entire subplot falls flat and feels unnecessary.
However, the two actors make the film watchable no matter how deep your allergy to cuteness runs, although the tour of NYC sometimes has the feel of (a well photographed) tourist brochure. Thankfully, Yara Shahidi and Charles Melton develop an easy chemistry on the way toward a satisfying denouement that’s neither tear-jerking tragedy nor fairy-tale wish fulfillment. John Leguizamo is also not bad in a small role. On the whole, ‘The Sun Is Also a Star’ is a visually delightfully YA film, which despite the presence of a magnifying chemistry, is bogged down by a weak script.
Directed – Ry Russo-Young
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 100 minutes