Teenagers need melodrama. They always have. It seems its big, sweeping emotions are somehow the only things that can match the high-stakes, hormone-enhanced teenage feelings. Director Ry Russo-Young excels at rendering those emotions with a singular sense of artfulness. In “The Sun Is Also a Star,” Russo-Young swirls together sun-dappled selfies, luscious skin, urban grittiness and hip-hop beats, the aesthetics perfectly matched to emotion. She creates a heady, knee-buckling mood that nearly conceals the weaknesses in story and performances.
The film is the feature adaptation of Nicola Yoon’s second novel. Her first, “Everything, Everything,” also went on to success as a movie adaptation, starring Amandla Stenberg and Nick Robinson in a swoony take on a Bubble Boy story. The sick teen genre is a well of deep potential with its heightened stakes and ticking clock. And in the structural sense, “The Sun Is Also a Star” is also a sick teen movie — without sickness. But the stakes are high and the clock is ticking — on a mandatory deportation from the United States.
Yara Shahidi (of “black-ish” and “grown-ish”) stars as Natasha, the daughter of Jamaican immigrants but a New Yorker through and through. The day before her family is set to be deported back to Jamaica, she makes a last-ditch attempt to change their fate by pleading their case to an immigration lawyer. She’s spotted in Grand Central Station by Daniel (“Riverdale” star Charles Melton), who notices she’s staring at the starry ceiling, and he interprets her “Deus Ex Machina” jacket as a sign. Daniel is a poet, a dreamer and believer in destiny, and he takes off after her. First he saves her from a speeding BMW in Chinatown, then persuades the science-driven Natasha to spend some time doing the “36 Questions” love study from The New York Times. “Give me a day,” he says, “and you’ll fall in love with me.”
Easy for the easy-on-the-eyes Melton to say! Shahidi and Melton both possess an otherworldly kind of beauty, and combined with Russo-Young’s lush, rhythmic cinematic style, you could just watch them bop around the city for hours, all shiny hair and plush lips. But then, they open their mouths and the spell is broken. The dialogue (the script is by Tracy Oliver) just grinds things to a halt, with speeches that are a bit too on the nose, and too-grand declarations of love. Then again, all those things seem so profound and meaningful at that age.
As pretty as Shahidi and Melton are, they just don’t share a palpable chemistry. Shahidi is undoubtedly a star, and while Melton is charming and gorgeous with a goofy puppy-dog energy, the more dramatic moments demonstrate the upper limitations of his range. Shahidi’s few short scenes with immigration lawyer John Leguizamo are far more riveting.
That’s somewhat covered up by Russo-Young’s impressive filmmaking. A New York City native, she captures the arresting energy of the city while imbuing the film with a sense of lyricism and grace, as if the streets are sprinkled with magical fairy dust. The world looks the way it feels when you’re falling in love, like everything is at its best, and everything makes sense. When you’re looking at the world through love-colored glasses, destiny doesn’t seem so far-fetched, and Russo-Young offers up a glimpse.