Midway through The Sun Is Also A Star, a cynical teen complains that all poems are about one of three things: love, sex, or the stars. While you could certainly quibble with her literary analysis—especially given that she’s speaking to a teenage poet whose influences range from Emily Dickinson to Tupac Shakur—her larger point stands. Genres often return to the same subject matter over and over again, and it helps to mix things up with something more original. Unfortunately, The Sun Is Also A Star only halfway takes that lesson to heart. Although the big-screen adaptation of Nicola Yoon’s best-selling young adult novel finds welcome specificity in its world and character building, it never rises above the most generic of platitudes in its central teen love story.
The Sun Is Also A Star largely unfolds over the course of 24 hours, as a chance meeting leads two savvy New York City high schoolers to spend the day criss-crossing the city together. Daniel Bae (Riverdale’s Charles Melton) is a romantic poet who believes fate has brought them together. Natasha Kingsley (Grown-ish’s Yara Shahidi) is a data-driven aspiring scientist who thinks love is just something humans made up to give meaning to their hormonal impulses. To prove her wrong, Daniel suggests they try the “36 Questions That Lead To Love” formula that was popularized by a 2015 New York Times article. If he can make her fall for him, they’ll have scientific proof that love is real. It’s the sort of absurdly grandiose idea you can imagine teenagers believing in, but which the film invests in a bit too earnestly itself.
Around the margins of their rote love story, however, The Sun Is Also A Star has much more unique stories to tell. The reason Natasha only has one day to spend with Daniel is because her Jamaican-born family is set to be deported the next day. Her dad’s undocumented status was discovered during a random ICE raid of the restaurant where he worked, and the Kingsleys are being forced to leave the city they’ve called home for the past nine years. While her family packs, Natasha scrambles her way into meetings with immigration officials and pro bono lawyers, desperately trying to find some way to re-open their case. Daniel, meanwhile, is facing his own concerns about the future as his Korean immigrant parents pressure him to major in pre-med at Dartmouth, despite his artistic aspirations.
In The Sun Is Also A Star’s most compelling sequences, director Ry Russo-Young (Nobody Walks, Before I Fall) 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. Russo-Young also adds visual flair to what could be a generic New York romance by using unique locations, like the Roosevelt Island aerial tramway and the hidden glass walkways in Grand Central Station. Yet despite all the specificity around its margins, the film keeps circling back to its lackluster romance, flattening its supporting players into one-note archetypes while failing to make Natasha and Daniel feel like more than romantic ciphers.
Unfortunately, naturalistic moments like a brief scene of Daniel goofing off with a revolving door are too few and far between, even though they do more to sell his playful romanticism than any of his many overly earnest monologues about fate. The film is bogged down by a weak script full of wooden dialogue that prevents Melton and Shahidi from developing any real sense of chemistry; instead, the romance is 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.
It’s easy to imagine the compelling elements of The Sun Is Also A Star being assembled in a much more engaging way—for example, there’s a version of this story that grapples with how Natasha’s and Daniel’s heightened emotional states make them particularly susceptible to a whirlwind romance. Another one would put more focus on the timely story of a teenager navigating the complex U.S. immigration system. As it is, however, The Sun Is Also A Star’s tension between fantasy and reality is ultimately just an illusion in a film that stacks the deck in favor of the former. It’s a shame that a story this original winds up feeling so generic.