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‘The Sun Is Also a Star’ can’t figure out which world to represent

Yara Shahidi and Charles Melton are beautiful together, but the plot isn’t so pretty

After seeing film adaptations of two Nicola Yoon novels, first Everything, Everything and now The Sun Is Also a Star, I’m beginning to wonder if it’s Yoon or the writers adapting her novels who think teenagers are idiots.

Both films rely on obvious, contrived obstacles to give their teen protagonists something to overcome. In 2017’s Everything, Everything, an overprotective mother invents an illness to keep her daughter, played by Amandla Stenberg, confined to the walls of their home, lest she step outside and die. In The Sun Is Also a Star, which opens Friday, a deportation order threatens to separate Natasha Kingsley (Yara Shahidi) and Daniel Bae (Charles Melton), but not before they spend a day gallivanting around New York and falling in love.

Yara Shahidi (left) and Charles Melton (right) have chemistry on screen, but it’s difficult for the audience to invest in their characters’ story.

Atsushi Nishijima

In The Sun Is Also a Star, the president is the unnamed villain whose immigration policy is behind the deportation order that puts a deadline on Natasha and Daniel’s new relationship. When Natasha meets Daniel, she’s in pursuit of a miracle (or at least a court order) that will postpone or cancel the deportation order for her family.

Jamaican-born Natasha is a science-worshipping high school junior and love skeptic who quotes Carl Sagan. But she speaks with an American accent, and like many children of immigrant parents, she handles her family’s interactions with the government. What’s odd is that her parents speak perfect English, which means the language barrier that often forces immigrant kids to become translators simply doesn’t exist. But somehow Natasha is best equipped to handle the maze of legal documents and strange, seemingly illogical requests that make navigating the U.S. immigration, citizenship and naturalization process a nightmare for many. This would maybe make more sense if Natasha were, say, a legal savant, but she’s into astronomy.

Then there’s Daniel, the dutiful younger son who is determined to attend Dartmouth, become a doctor and not disappoint his Korean immigrant parents the way his less ambitious, tattooed older brother already has. Daniel’s a romantic who loves writing poetry, and after saving Natasha from getting hit by a car, he’s convinced he’s found the perfect girl to proselytize about the magic of love.

There are two problems:
1. Natasha’s family is being deported in 24 hours.
2. Natasha is, for most of the movie, stubbornly resistant to revealing this piece of information to Daniel.

The second problem is especially frustrating, given that so much of the does-she-like-me-or-not angst that Daniel experiences could be alleviated with … a conversation.

After their car crash meet-cute and a few lucky coincidences, Natasha and Daniel spend the day together, hopping from Caffe Reggio in Greenwich Village to Daniel’s parents’ beauty supply store in Harlem, to a planetarium, to a karaoke bar, before falling asleep in a park overnight and then dashing back to the attorney whom Natasha has persuaded to take on her family’s case.

Director Ry Russo-Young gives the story of two children of immigrants falling in love a gorgeous look, with hopeful sweeps across the New York skyline. Her flashbacks to the story of how Natasha’s parents met, or a brief explainer of how Koreans came to dominate the black hair care and wig market, provide delicious visual treats that segue away from the main story. Shahidi and Melton are charming and utterly watchable together. They’re both absurdly attractive and skilled actors, but whatever magic exists between them is limited by Tracy Oliver’s script.

Complete investment in Natasha and Daniel is hampered by a cheesiness that prompted repeated laughs from the audience at my screening during moments that were supposed to be solemn or romantic. Daniel’s sexy rendition of “Crimson and Clover” by Tommy James and the Shondells netted nervous titters alongside full-on guffaws. So did another moment, when Daniel exclaims to Natasha, “The universe wants us to be together!”

With so much cruelty directly impacting the Kingsley family, the naivete of both characters, but especially Daniel, comes across as tone-deaf. These kids were raised in New York in the wake of 9/11, in an America that can’t seem to do anything to stem school shootings. It doesn’t hurt the story to acknowledge how that influences the way Natasha and Daniel experience the world. Instead, The Sun Is Also a Star goes back and forth between using the cruelty of modern America as a backdrop and then expecting its audience to pivot to forgetting about it entirely, which makes it impossible to fully invest in either aspect of the story. Instead of recalling the psychedelic longing of first love, The Sun Is Also a Star inflicts something more like whiplash.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She's based in Brooklyn.