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Dustin Putman

The Sun Is Also a Star  (2019)
3 Stars
Directed by Ry Russo-Young.
Cast: Yara Shahidi, Charles Melton, John Leguizamo, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Keong Sim, Jake Choi, Miriam A. Hyman, Cathy Shim, Jordan Williams, Camrus Johnson.
2019 – 120 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for some suggestive content and language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman for, May 15, 2019.
A Manhattan resident for nine years, Natasha Kingston (Yara Shahidi) is a pragmatic teenage girl desperate to stop her family's ICE-ordered deportation back to her birthplace of Jamaica. Daniel Bae (Charles Melton) is a poetry-writing dreamer of the same age, the U.S.-born younger son of South Korean immigrants. They don't know each other when the day begins, but their paths will soon cross, ultimately changing their outlooks on life, love and the nature of fate. A timely adaptation of Nicola Yoon's best-selling 2016 novel, "The Sun Is Also a Star" is a winsome romance caught in the tangled web of harsh reality. The bittersweet sincerity director Ry Russo-Young (2017's "Before I Fall") and screenwriter Tracy Oliver (2017's "Girls Trip") bring to the material—aided in no small part by the aching chemistry between lead actors Yara Shahidi (TV's "Grown-ish," 2012's "Alex Cross") and Charles Melton (TV's "Riverdale")—grows tougher to resist the longer the picture plays out, and why would anyone want to?

The observantly rich story is primarily set over a 24-hour period in which Natasha and Daniel are both at respective crossroads. With her family busy packing up their cramped NYC apartment, Natasha heads to her appointment with her immigration officer—a last-ditch effort to keep herself, her little brother (Jordan Williams), and her parents (Gbenga Akinnagbe and Miriam A. Hyman) from having to move back to Jamaica the following day. Daniel, meanwhile, is half-heartedly bound for a college interview with Dartmouth, his black-haircare shopkeeper parents (Keong Sim and Cathy Shim) insistent on his future as a doctor even as he has no interest in such a profession. When Daniel first spots Natasha, he sees the words printed on the back of her jacket—"Deus Ex Machina"—as a sign; as it turns out, he's in the middle of penning a poem with that very title. In meet-cute fashion which almost proves meet-tragic, Daniel saves Natasha from getting hit by a car. The sparks, as they say, fly almost immediately, but Natasha is understandably reluctant about getting too close; what she knows and this new alluring guy in her life doesn't is that she's on the precipice of likely having to leave the country. And while Daniel insists fate has pulled them together and rather boldly claims he can get her to fall in love with him by the end of the day, she sees their meeting as pure coincidence. When she tells him she doesn't believe in love because there's no way to scientifically prove its existence, even she seems to be reassessing her perspective as she says it.

"The Sun Is Also a Star" is rarer than one might think, a disease-free, racially diverse, character-centric teen drama produced by a major studio (Warner Bros., in this case). With tinges of both 1995's "Before Sunrise" and 2001's "Serendipity" in its DNA, the film is a gentle, incisive slice-of-life, following two sun-crossed souls and their cosmic connection which increasingly appears to be more than merely chance. With four hours to spare after Natasha's morning meeting with an immigration officer leads to a separate afternoon meeting that may buy her more time in the U.S., she agrees to spend the day with Daniel. Where they go and what they do—visiting a museum; having an uncomfortable run-in with Daniel's father and combative older brother Charlie (Jake Choi); stopping into a karaoke booth where Daniel sings Tommy James and the Shondells' "Crimson and Clover" and Natasha, for perhaps the first time, begins to realize she might just be falling in love—is secondary to the human connection and emotions which build between these two intelligent, resourceful protagonists. Getting to know them makes for an always engaging, occasionally swoon-worthy two hours, urgency building little by little as the expiration date of their face-to-face relationship looms. Yara Shahidi and Charles Melton are a perfect onscreen match, bringing the Natasha and Daniel of the book to life. That this is their first respective starring film leads is stunning; both are naturals, able to express just as much with their bodies and faces as they do with the words in the script.

As often must be the case due to feature-length time restraints, "The Sun Is Also a Star" simplifies certain characters and subplots from Nicola Yoon's novel (the most significant casualty is Natasha's struggling-actor father Samuel and her contentious relationship with him, the complexities of which have been almost entirely excised). Regardless, this is a confident, even impressive adaptation that captures not only the essence and heart of the book, but also many of its existential ruminations (Carl Sagan is effectively name-checked) and fascinating asides (like a brief, informative history of black haircare products and how it came to be such a lucrative business for Korean immigrants). Herdís Stefánsdóttir's swirling, culturally dynamic music score complements the story at hand, while cinematography by Autumn Durald (2019's "Teen Spirit") captures the very beauty and possibilities of the Big Apple which Natasha so passionately sees in the city. Meanwhile, aerial shots of the skyline turning sideways act as mystical, cogent metaphor for Natasha and Daniel's circumstances in a world gone topsy-turvy, threatening to tilt off its axis. If something grander than themselves is conspiring to push them together, the cruelty of Trump-era policies stands to pull them apart. While the current U.S. president is never mentioned by name, he doesn't need to be for the point to be made. It's an added layer which Yoon likely could not have predicted when she wrote the novel while President Obama was still in office, and one treated here with a touch both subtle yet impactful. As "The Sun Is Also a Star" sees it, nothing can stop a person's destiny. The film's final ten minutes, in turn, are tough and bitter and, finally, sublimely hopeful. It's just the right send-off in a love story that earns every last one of its sentiments.
© 2019 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman

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