Courtney Howard is an OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR
Rated PG-13, 1 hr 40 min
Directed by: Ry Russo-Young
There’s no scientific formula when it comes to crafting a sentimental romantic film. Though there are many ingredients that are stirred into the melting pot, the film’s primary task is to capture a mood and specific feel, enrapturing the audience in a warm, comfortable experience. Director Ry Russo-Young’s THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR does just that, giving audiences a sweet, swoon-worthy romance in which to escape. Based on Nicola Yoon’s YA novel, and adapted by Tracy Oliver, this coming-of-age drama about a romance between a Jamaican-born young woman and a son of Korean immigrants imparts a stirring sense of compassion, courage and culture in a cinematic love letter to New York City.
Natasha Kingsley (BLACK-ISH’s Yara Shahidi) is a practical young lady who believes in facts and science – not destiny and love. However, she’s caught in a world-upending situation with her family that will test her sensibilities. Her family is a day away from being deported back to Jamaica, and she’s attempting every last-ditch, desperate effort to keep them and herself in the United States. As luck would have it, her journey to meet with lawyers and case workers leads her to cross paths with hunky college hopeful Daniel Bae (RIVERDALE’s Charles Melton), whose high-stakes interview with a prospective college’s alumni is also taking place later that day. They unwittingly travel on the subway together, collectively hearing an impactful story about the power of providence from the conductor. The day gets even stranger when the phrase Daniel had written earlier in his poetry journal appears on the back of Natasha’s satin jacket.
Taking it as a message from the universe, Daniel follows and rescues Natasha from sure-fire death on the city streets, promising that, if given one day, he can make her fall in love with him. She’s dubious about the prospect, but as she has time to kill before she meets with a pro-bono lawyer (John Leguizamo), she agrees to play along with the experiment. In a move assuredly inspired by Richard Linklater’s BEFORE series, the budding couple bounce around the city for 24 hours – bathed in the warm glow of a perfect day’s sunlight, conversing in skate parks, chilling in a cafe, holding hands in a planetarium and cuddling overnight in a park a’ glow in the moonlight. But as Natasha begins to lose herself in the heat of this relationship, she fears she’s going to be an even bigger loser when further complications arise, putting their newfound life together in jeopardy.
The idea of ‘New York City as a character,’ as cliché as it may sound at this point, speaks to the foundational base of Yoon’s novel – and it’s there in every inch of the frame. Russo-Young ascribes an elegant aesthetic to the narrative. She takes us on a cinematic walking tour of the city through areas that aren’t as iconic or previously defined on screen, though are still the cultural heartbeat of the city’s humanity. Transitions between the scenes are far from dulled in her hands. Twisting and turning the camera counter-clockwise reflects the protagonist’s point-of-view being thrown off kilter as her world turns upside down. She also utilizes the soundtrack to augment narrative nuances. Whether it be the determined drumline when Natasha marches into metaphorical battle, or an overall wistful amorousness, composer Herdís Stefánsdóttir’s score fills the cracks left open in an organic, not obtrusive, manner.
Russo-Young and cinematographer Autumn Durald create a look and texture of love, best showcased in the scene set in the karaoke bar, where Daniel serenades Natasha with Tommy James and the Shondells’ “Crimson and Clover.” The warm glow of the neon reflects off their skin, their souls in sync, burning with desire as the music and the sensual timber of his voice eclipses Natasha in a daydream of their future life together as a couple. While a bit too reliant on lens flare, effused lighting and fuzzy lenses, the visual interpretation of this couple’s tenderness is enchanting.
Performances from Shahidi and Melton are crucial as in lesser hands, both characters could come across as cloying or annoying. They walk that fine line with assuredness and authenticity. Their chemistry radiates as much in their playful banter as in the romantic facets. They pull us in when necessary. That said, their more dramatic, sweeping moments – like when she’s in her lawyer’s office, and when he flips out on his jealous older brother Charlie (Jake Choi) – could use a little more restraint, but are still effective.
Infusing a deep sense of humanity and cultural identity keeps this from being an average teen melodrama. The issues-based underpinnings of Yoon’s novel, which Russo-Young and company never exploit, raise the picture above middling territory.
THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR opens on May 17.