"The Sun Is Also a Star," was so painfully close to being an enjoyable experience. I should have felt swept up in Ry Russo-Young's romantic drama about two interesting young characters from immigrant backgrounds falling for each other as they shared their passions and stories. Instead, there are periodic reminders that something about this movie is off. It's not so distracting that the movie loses its sense of romantic fantasy, but it's jarring enough that my audience's early reactions of "Awww..." eventually turned into groans.
Based on Nicola Yoon's YA novel of the same title, "The Sun Is Also a Star" follows Natasha Kingsley (Yara Shahidi, "Grown-ish"), a Jamaican-born aspiring astronomer, on what could be her last day in New York City before she and her family are deported. In the middle of this chaotic time, during which she chases one last hope to stay with the help of a sympathetic immigration lawyer (John Leguizamo), she catches the eye of sweet-natured Korean-American boy Daniel Bae (Charles Melton, "Riverdale") who wants to become a poet instead of following the medical career path his parents have chosen for him.
Natasha is skeptical about love, while Daniel is a dreamer and a romantic. Faced with a tight deadline, the two spend what time they have together so that Daniel can prove to her that love is very much real, even if you can't test it against the scientific method.
Already, you might be getting a sense of whether or not this film is too sweet or too cheesy for your tastes. I don't mind a little bit of either, but when the scales tip over, the movie lays these gooey qualities on too thick. The movie starts and ends with a Carl Sagan quote, the phrase "Deus Ex Machina" becomes an on-the-nose calling card, and at one point, a subway announcer regales his captive audience with a sobering story about how even running late to work might be the work of fate. If these faults were in Yoon's book, then screenwriter Tracy Oliver ("Little") did not take the time to take out the source material's bumps.
While Shahidi and Melton are fine on their own, their shared chemistry doesn't always spark on screen. At times, their exchanges feel more stilted than lovestruck, and it feels a little awkward to watch the two actors struggle to connect. Shahidi's logic-minded character rejects frivolous emotions, so it's up to Melton to win the audience over to believe in the relationship. For his part, Melton acts like an earnest Noah Centineo character, a low-key hunk ready with just the right words to say, and he carries the movie's sentiments for most of the run time.
Russo-Young ("Before I Fall") takes some considerable risks in her direction to make "The Sun Is Also a Star" look different from the typical romantic drama. But not all of these creative decisions pay off. For instance, there are a number of sweeping views of the New York City skyline that film from its side or at odd angles that don't really advance the story. These shots could easily have been sacrificed so that the audience could spend more time with the central characters. Other off-putting creative moves include adding uneven blurs to Autumn Durald's warm cinematography, making parts of the screen seem out of focus, and using scrappy handheld camerawork for close-ups that felt too unpolished and distracting.
"The Sun Is Also a Star" shines brightest when focused on the deportation plot that threatens to separate these star-crossed interracial lovers. For a tale as old as boy-meets-girl, this timely bit of pressure gives the story a sense of urgency. As the two discover more about themselves, the movie reveals more about the characters' backgrounds, like stories of how their parents met, a historical explainer for how Koreans came to own the majority of black beauty supply stores, and the high-pressure expectations on first- and second-generation children of immigrants to succeed in the U.S.
There's even a moment when Daniel's older brother and father say something racist to Natasha, and Daniel steps in to defend her. Later, he shows that he's embarrassed by his family's behavior, and the two grow closer after surviving the cringe-worthy ordeal.
The film's celebration of fate and destiny sounds like the stuff of Norman Jewison's brilliant "Only You," Peter Chelsom's "Serendipity" or even Leo McCarey's 1957 romantic staple, "An Affair to Remember." The latter two also take place throughout New York City, but perhaps "The Sun Is Also a Star" is the one movie that really wears its love of the five boroughs on its sleeve. The movie bounces up and downtown in a remarkably short amount of time, stopping through Chinatown, the Financial District, Greenwich Village, the Upper West Side, Harlem, Koreatown, Roosevelt Island, Downtown Brooklyn, Crown Heights and Queens.
While the script, overall aesthetic and acting don't always pan out for "The Sun is Also a Star," there's enough of a tenderhearted first-romance fantasy to like, but not to fully love.