A few years ago, I was giving a talk somewhere, and a gentleman in the audience asked, “What is the role of free will in criticism?” I didn’t have a good answer, but the question came back to haunt me during a recent screening of “The Sun Is Also a Star,” a film much concerned with issues of chance, destiny and choice.
What, I wondered, had brought me to that dark room where two nice-looking teenagers (Yara Shahidi of “black-ish” and Charles Melton of “Riverdale”) were canoodling in a karaoke booth, and then on an empty Roosevelt Island tram car hovering above the East River? Was it fate? A series of decisions I had made earlier in my life, or that someone else had made for me? Might I find the answers in the writings of Carl Sagan or the poems of Emily Dickinson?
If you are fascinated by this line of inquiry, you might enjoy this super-sincere young-adult romance, directed by Ry Russo-Young from Tracy Oliver’s screenplay and based on Nicola Yoon’s best-selling novel. But philosophical interests aren’t a prerequisite and may in fact interfere with the business of watching the two main characters banter, flirt and then, at last, make out. That’s not a spoiler: If you didn’t know that Shahidi and Melton were destined to make out within 10 minutes of seeing them onscreen, you have no hope of passing whatever class this is.
Natasha Kingsley (Shahidi) lives in Brooklyn, Daniel Bae (Melton) in Queens. One radiantly sunlit morning, they both have urgent business in Manhattan. Daniel has an alumni interview that he hopes will get him into Dartmouth, a first step in realizing his parents’ dream that he’ll become a doctor. His own ambitions are more literary, but as the dutiful first-generation son of Korean immigrants, he accepts his destiny.
Natasha, whose family came to New York from Jamaica when she was in grade school, is on a desperate mission to prevent their deportation. Her parents (Miriam A. Hyman and Gbenga Akinnagbe) are resigned to leaving — they are scheduled to depart the day after most of the movie’s action takes place — but their daughter is determined to find someone to handle the family’s legal appeal so they can stay in the city she loves. (The someone turns out to be a subdued John Leguizamo.)
The filmmakers love the city, too. Their ardor is expressed in aerial and street-level shots that highlight the romance of New York without sanding off too much of the grit. (Autumn Durald Arkapaw is the director of photography.) Not that grittiness is the aesthetic here. It’s all warmth and magic and smart, striving kids taking themselves seriously so the audience can have a good time. The story and its trappings feel a little generic, the dialogue studiously bland and the characters and their problems curiously weightless, in spite of gestures in the direction of real-world issues.
Natasha and Daniel are sealed in a protective bubble, cushioned in sentimental pop music of various styles and eras — would a Gen Z kid really pick “Crimson and Clover” at karaoke? I don’t know, but it kind of works — and filmed as if they were the most adorable puppies ever to snuggle on Instagram. They are so appealing — I mean, his last name is Bae, and she never makes a joke about it — that you will totally believe that he is a budding poet and that her thing is astronomy. I’m not saying you wouldn’t believe it otherwise, but the passions that these two proclaim for things that aren’t each other seem a bit decorative. They do argue some about fate, love, free will and the nature of the cosmos, but this is mostly so their mouths can get some exercise before they start kissing.
There are complications — canceled appointments, Daniel’s racist jerk of an older brother (Jake Choi), a stalled subway train, fate and family — but nothing all that complicated. “The Sun Is Also a Star,” like its title, doesn’t benefit from overthinking. The themes serve the mood, which is charming. You could choose to believe otherwise, of course, but why be that way?