‘Hollywood Stargirl’ Review: Grace VanderWaal Wows in a Splendid Disney+ Sequel

Director Julia Hart has quietly crafted a Disney+ franchise that continues to unfold in creative and charming ways. Her adaptation of “Stargirl” debuted on the streamer just as lockdown began; now with “Hollywood Stargirl,” the second film in the series, it’s clear the writer-director’s voice has taken shape in the same assured way as that of her young heroine. Hart and co-writer Jordan Horowitz’s follow-up goes blessedly off-book, diverging greatly from author Jerry Spinelli’s source novel “Love, Stargirl” to deliver its own unique view on how artistic passion evolves and inspires. The sequel shifts perspective from the original, which captured the eponymous teen’s triumphs through a male protagonist’s lens, and better foregrounds her sparkle and shine.

Sentimental songbird Stargirl Caraway (Grace VanderWaal) is once again on the move, traveling from the subdued suburban haunts of Mica, Arizona to the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles. Yet she’s grown tired of feeling like a rolling stone without a home. It’s the summer before her senior year and her mom Ana (Judy Greer) has finally landed her big break as the costume designer on a studio film. The road-weary pair are more than ready to settle into their new, potentially permanent adventure in the eclectic enclave of Los Feliz. However, true gratification won’t come without hurdles.

Stargirl’s indomitable spirit, quirky style and perfect pipes instantly get her noticed by a few folks, including curmudgeonly downstairs neighbor Mr. Mitchell (Judd Hirsch), a retired film producer, and cute boy next door Evan (Elijah Richardson), an aspiring filmmaker. While both have opposite reactions upon overhearing her ukulele-forward cover of ‘Mama’ Cass Elliot’s “Make Your Own Kind of Music,” it’s Evan who enlists her to help him and his brother Terrell (Tyrel Jackson Williams) make a sizzle reel for their movie idea — which, of course, vaguely parallels the story of “Hollywood Stargirl” itself. While Ana is busy with demanding work constraints, Stargirl embarks on a personal mission to write her own music and lyrics, no longer relying on someone else’s artistry to elevate her own talents.

Hart and her team have carefully and craftily built the ultimate sequel. The narrative advances the perky protagonist’s internal and external objectives with a gentle yet profound arc; technical contributions complement her journey, both visually and sonically. The film never betrays its lead character in any fashion. Though other characters predictably change for the better for having known her, they also reinforce the themes. Caustic, disillusioned singer-songwriter Roxanne Martel (Uma Thurman) rejects a request to use one of her songs, but it sparks Stargirl and Evan’s drive to create their own melancholy bop — one that delivers a resounding message on the nature of the business and the notion of resourcefulness.

Shooting the film like a sweet summer romance where daily possibilities are endless and the Southern California weather is always pristine, Hart and cinematographer Bryce Fortner complement our heroine’s innate vibrancy with a fresh, saturated palette, while handheld shots aid the immediacy and intimacy of introspective moments. Editors Tracey Wadmore-Smith and Shayar Bhansali allow room for interstitial sequences that showcase the peaceful beauty of Los Angeles, from twinkling city lights to the jacaranda and palm trees sharing the landscape. Composers Rob Simonsen and Duncan Blickenstaff’s themes combine to entrancing effect as Stargirl’s talents mature, with the soundtrack itself — a mix of original songs by Michael Penn and covers of Blondie’s “Dreaming” and Brian Wilson’s “Love And Mercy,” among others — also leveling up from the previous picture.

With her pixie hairdo, reserves of strength and sweet, soft-spoken voice evoking classic Mia Farrow, VanderWaal is once again a magnetic presence. With the material primarily focused on her this time, she brings greater authenticity and pathos to an established character. Richardson, a buoyant, charismatic presence, pairs well with her, as the duo’s chemistry sells us on their young, innocent love. As for the adults, Greer’s brings depth and dimension to Ana, providing a nuanced sense of parental guilt in balancing dreams with pragmatic reality. Thurman and Hirsch likewise excel in tough, tender supporting roles.

Ultimately, the film’s strength is in its sentiments surrounding the notion of success: what it can look like, how to get it and how to sustain it in a fickle industry. It’s a meaningful love letter to the artistic, creative process, dedicated to dreamers with unwavering ambition.

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