The Sun Is Also a Star
“For all of its well-meaning examinations of race, The Sun Is Also a Star rests upon troubling casting.”
Title: The Sun Is Also a Star (2019)
Director: Ry Russo-Young 👩🏼🇺🇸
Writers: Screenplay by Tracy Oliver 👩🏼🇺🇸 based on the novels by Nicola Yoon 👩🏾🇯🇲🇺🇸
Review by Robert Daniels 👨🏾🇺🇸
Based on the best-selling YA romance by Nicola Yoon, The Sun Is Also a Star revolves around the relationship between two immigrant teens: Natasha Kingsley (Yara Shahidi, who commands an exceptional performance) and Daniel Bae (Charles Melton).
Daniel, an idealistic poet, spots the sardonic Natasha wearing a jacket with the phrase “Deus Ex Machina” among a crowd of people at Grand Central Station right after scribbling the same words in his notebook. Interpreting their meeting as fate, Daniel offers the reluctant Natasha a challenge: Give him 24 hours, and he’ll make her fall in love with him.
Thanks to its sweet romance and young protagonists of color, as well as some aesthetic and narrative similarities, The Sun Is Also a Star recalls Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk (2018). Both are based on novels and rely on voiceovers and still photography for exposition, while shallow depths of field keep the couples at the forefront. Toss in circular pans for lovers’ embraces and budding relationships that quake under the threats of systematic forces—the incarceration of Black men in Beale Street and deportation for The Sun Is Also a Star—and viewers can’t help but see the parallels. However, this doesn’t make them equal. The Sun Is Also a Star lacks the layered story that Jenkins builds through believable cause-and-effect events.
In Beale Street, the lifelong friendship between Tish and Fonnie succeeds imminently more than the forced temporal restriction of director Ry Russo-Young’s adaptation, as Natasha and Daniel keep running into each other in a series of unlikely coincidences. This narrative construct, and in a broader sense the entire film itself, lives between earnestness and eyerolls. The Sun Is Also a Star simply doesn’t earn the guile required to take Natasha and Daniel’s love to its heartbreaking and inevitable conclusion, tangled up as it gets within its own cheeseball script.
Though the film revolves around a central romance, it still very much follows Natasha herself. Intelligent and well-sketched, she offers the logical boundaries of this fanciful film by poking holes in Daniel’s theories about true love.
The strength of her character keeps the story from falling into rom-com tropes of the ‘90s, where women act as trophies for men’s narratives. Natasha never allows her burgeoning love for Daniel to supercede her goal of remaining in the country to attend college.
While she does ultimately come under the poetic spell of Daniel’s tenderness—of course she does, it’s a YA romance—their courtship flourishes with intent yet never betrays Natasha’s intellectual ideals, nor the progression of her character.
GradeMyMovie.com Assessment: 63% of key cast and crew members were POC.
Russo-Young’s film gives a solid effort in shaking up the romance genre. One of its most visible tactics includes doing away with white protagonists in favor of centering an interracial couple: Natasha’s family hails from Jamaica, while Daniel’s immigrated from Korea.
Both Americanized teens rebel against their immigrant parents who implore them to put their families ahead of individual desires. To reinforce this dynamic, Russo-Young intersperses shots of Natasha embracing idealistic American activities, like reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, while her disillusioned parents cry in the darkness of their soon-to-be-former home.
For Natasha, her primary concern involves the fight to remain in America. Under the threat of forced deportation in a matter of 24 hours—coincidentally, the same amount of time Daniel has to make Natasha fall in love him—she undergoes several meetings with an immigration lawyer to keep herself and her family in the country. While the film lacks a nuanced take on our country’s flawed and convoluted immigration system, the emotional toll it exacts weighs heavily upon our characters.
On the other hand, Daniel’s experience with immigration looks completely different. In an interesting spotlight on the trend of Korean entrepreneurs owning Black beauty stores, the Baes own a Black hair care shop and live a middle-class lifestyle that supports a bright future for their son. While Natasha fights to stay in the country, Daniel awaits an interview for Dartmouth’s medical program.
Nevertheless, familial obligations, reinforced by flashbacks to Daniel’s doljanchi (a first birthday party where an array of objects relating to potential careers are presented to a baby to “choose”), seem to have predetermined his life. He may have chosen a stethoscope during his doljanchi, but being allowed to pursue a career in poetry remains Daniel’s holy grail.
However, for all of the film’s well-meaning examinations of race, its narrative rests upon troubling casting. Melton plays a fully Korean character, yet the actor—who comes from a white and Korean family—would sooner be mistaken for Clark Kent than a member of BTS.
This suspension of disbelief takes an ugly turn when the story calls for Natasha to meet Daniel’s family. Charlie (Jake Choi), Daniel’s brother, commits several micro (and macro) aggressions against Natasha such as “mistaking” her for a thief. Using the visibly Korean brother as the racist foil to Daniel feeds into the unsavory practice of colorism.
Additionally, though Natasha proudly informs Daniel’s father (Keong Sim) that she prefers wearing her hair big, said colorism extends to her character as well. With her lighter complexion, Natasha acts as the “heroic figure” among her antagonistic—and darker skinned—family. The dichotomy follows the pattern of casting Melton against a fully Korean family, as Yara Shahidi is also mixed-race (Black and Iranian with Choctaw ancestry) rebelling against an all Black family.
Mediaversity Grade: C+ 3.50/5
In many regards, The Sun Is Also a Star fights itself. While building an “unlikely” relationship through several narrative cliches, the film manages to offer an initially gut-wrenching and brave conclusion. However, the final two minutes causes the film to tumble to a predictable ending.
The film’s well-intentioned but ultimately unsuccessful resolution mirrors the way race is handled. Fatal errors that fall prey to colorism and immigrant tropes defeat the film’s better angels, causing this ostensibly diverse romance to fall painfully short.