Arts movie review

‘The Sun is Also a Star’ wants you to know it’s woke

Can an immigrant love story exist without a political agenda?

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Charles Melton plays Daniel Bae and Yara Shahidi plays Natasha Kingsley in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures’ romantic drama 'The Sun is Also a Star.'
Atsushi Nishijima

The Sun is Also a Star
Directed by Ry Russo-Young
Screenplay by Tracy Oliver
Starring Yara Shahidi, Charlie Melton
Rated PG-13

“It does no harm to the romance of the sunset to know a little about it.” So begins Nicola Yoon’s The Sun is Also a Star, with Carl Sagan’s trademark alloy of physics and poetics in a quote that snares the book in microcosm. The young adult bestseller, published in 2016, veers between fantastical, swoony romance and politically-tinged coming-of-age. In the sun-dappled Big Apple, high school seniors Natasha Kingsley and Daniel Bae collide (literally) into each other, igniting a dreamy love affair between the two. But their relationship is inevitably short-lived. It’s Natasha’s last day in the United States, as her family is being deported back to Jamaica.

Unfortunately, the film neglects its source material’s intricate emotional landscape, choosing instead to clobber audiences over the head with moral instruction. The phrase “in this political climate” is repeated multiple times, as if the Trump era somehow made immigrant narratives more important or worthy of the big screen. The details of the Kingsleys’ deportation — richly explored and thematically purposeful in the book — are reduced to a throwaway sentence about a ripped-from-the-headlines ICE raid. As a result, the movie’s romantic contours are barely filled in. Natasha (Yara Shahidi) and Daniel (Charlie Melton) are established as nothing more than archetypes: she’s the no-nonsense scientist who doesn’t believe in love, he’s the starry-eyed poet tasked with convincing her otherwise. They’re both young and attractive, but their flirtations fall flat. One eye-roll-inspiring exchange: Daniel insists that falling in love requires “the X factor,” to which Natasha asks, “What’s that?” He replies, “Don’t worry, we’ve got it.” (The audience giggled.)

Still, the camerawork is lush. New York comes alive in luminous hues, and special attention is given to oft-unmentioned corners of the city: a karaoke bar, a black hair care shop, the Roosevelt Island tram. This reimagined NYC is gorgeous, hopeful, and the perfect spot for a whirlwind romance. The movie’s aesthetics are so compelling, it’s easy to forgo one’s own skepticism.

Unfortunately, The Sun is Also a Star poses a timely inquiry on who gets to be an American, and that’s exactly why it doesn’t succeed as a film. By devoting too much screen time to formulaic immigrant tropes, the movie loses the nuance and emotional resonance of the original story. Natasha and Daniel are no longer lovestruck teens caught in circumstances outside of their control; rather, they embody said circumstances, glossed with seductive visuals and an ebullient soundtrack. Perhaps it does no harm to the romance of a sunset to know a little about it, but its beauty is meaningful, too, without an attached lesson.