When Ry Russo-Young arrived at Sundance in January 2017, the festival regular — she had previously debuted films in both the New Frontiers and Competition sections — returned to the annual Park City event with a surprising new feature: an adaptation of “Before I Fall,” based on Lauren Oliver’s YA novel of the same name, a teenage spin on “Groundhog Day” with a dramatic bite. Featuring a breakout performance from rising star Zoey Deutch, the film pulled in mixed reviews, though nearly every critic singled out Russo-Young’s strong direction and ability to add new dimensions to a story audiences might have thought they already knew.
When it hit theaters two months later, the Open Road production made a tidy $19 million on a $5 million budget, making it the filmmaker’s biggest moneymaker yet in a career that had already seen the release of three earlier features. (Her previous film, “Nobody Walks,” boasted a starry cast and Lena Dunham as a co-writer, but even it made just $25,000 at the box office.) Moving to a teen-centric movie after her character-driven dramas seemed like an offbeat choice for Russo-Young, but one that clearly paid off and spoke to her greater sensibilities and skills.
At the time, she explained to IndieWire why “Before I Fall” and its genre intrigued her. “I think YA has, in some cases, talked down to teenagers,” Russo-Young said. “And kind of concluded that their experience is cute or trite at times. One of things that ‘Before I Fall’ does is it dignifies the teenage experience. … It’s a time when you’re really asking yourself these hard questions of who you are and what your purpose is.”
For her first post-“Before I Fall” film, Russo-Young stayed in the genre that had helped push her to new heights, though the filmmaker is honest about how making one YA film could potentially trap you in that kind of narrative box forever.
“I would say I was offered almost exclusively YA [movies],” the filmmaker said about her post-“Before I Fall” options. “It’s just a little bit of that culture of, ‘oh, you did this, right now, do the same thing again.’ And sometimes, that’s okay, and sometimes you’re like, ‘okay, I’m done, now I have to push to do something different.’ And that’s definitely what I am exploring now, is different films. But at the same time, if I came across something that blew my mind and I felt like an urgency to make, I would maybe do that. But the bar is really high!”
“The Sun Is Also a Star” raised the bar for Russo-Young — just like “Before I Fall,” the film tackles mature subject matter for a younger audience, an intriguing combination. All of that spoke to the filmmaker. “I think that this story differentiated itself from others, but it also felt like something that needed to be told urgently because of the politics of it,” she said. “And the fact that it was set in New York City, it felt like a great opportunity to bring a lot of where I’m from and my New York insight into it.”
In her fifth feature, the filmmaker went deeper into the wilds of the YA world, armed with a slightly lighter story than “Before I Fall,” but one bolstered by a timely hook. The big screen adaptation of Nicola Yoon’s “The Sun Is Also a Star” is Warner Bros.’ second foray into the author’s smart, visually vibrant world, following the 2017 release of Stella Meghie’s adaptation of her “Everything, Everything.” Scripted by “Girls Trip” screenwriter Tracy Oliver, the film follows teens Natasha (Yara Shahidi) and Daniel (Charles Melton), who meet during one pivotal day in New York City.
Natasha, an overachiever who has big (if practical) dreams for her future is just hours away from being deported back to Jamaica. While Natasha’s family has accepted their fate, she’s intent on knocking down every door in New York City if it means finding someone who can stop her from being kicked out of the only home she’s ever loved. Along the way, she runs into Melton’s Daniel, another smartypants immigrant who is carving out a different life for himself in the big city. Brought together by fate and their shared experience, the two set off on a magical day in the city with some very real consequences. It’s both relatable and wholly eye-opening.
“Certainly, the humanization of these characters regarding what’s going on with immigration, was a huge appeal to me, politically, personally, what the world needs to see,” she said. “But also, Nicola did such an incredible job in the book of bringing such cultural specificity to these characters and their families, and because it’s based on her and her husband’s real life — her husband is Korean-American, she’s Jamaican-American. … It was a history that I was not privy to until I read the book, and then I was like, ‘oh, this is incredible,’ this specific kind of combination of two cultures and these two kids who kind of become who they are, but also sort of have to overcome their past and their history.”
Working in the YA genre affords Russo-Young the chance to build films around rising talents like Shahidi and Melton, and after bonding with her “Before I Fall” star Deutch, it seems she’s done it again with her new duo. “Who better to play Natasha than Yara Shahidi? Because she is so incredibly impressive as a person, as a brainiac and as a political voice in the world,” Russo-Young said. “Charles is like so much fun, like as a cohort, as a person to play with creatively. … They actually are pretty similar to their characters, they both share a lot with their characters, and they brought a lot of themselves to their characters and made them their own.”
The born and bred New Yorker also got to inject her own personality and experience into the film. While Russo-Young admitted with a laugh that “The Sun Is Also a Star” is “a little bit less geographically accurate than I’d like,” she’s pleased with the stuff they managed to get right. For instance, a number of sequences take place on actual NYC subways, which Russo-Young managed to cram into one “mammoth” day of shooting — “full disclosure: the subway was our most expensive day of shooting” — that ended with the production taking the train across the Williamsburg Bridge for a key sequence.
That kind of can-do, get-it-done spirit has always marked Russo-Young’s films (even “Before I Fall” was made in just 24 days), and as she prepares for the next chapter in her career, she’s intent on sticking to her well-earned scrappiness. Further armed with the knowledge that the industry might want to keep her in one space, Russo-Young already has some ideas about what’s next.
“I guess I wouldn’t say it’s pigeonholed so much, but I am worried about not having freedom to be able to the do the projects that I want to,” she said when asked about being kept in the YA world. After a pause, the filmmaker continued, “I guess I’m not really worried about it, because I think I’ll figure it out. The thing is, I really do enjoy making movies about teenagers, but it’s not the only thing I want to do. I’m definitely aware of all of that when I’m reading material. There’s just a lot that I want to explore outside of that, outside of the ‘YA or teenage world,’ so I’m looking forward to doing that.”
She’s currently working on a handful of different projects — of “different sizes and scopes and levels,” the filmmaker promised — though she’s a bit superstitious about announcing anything before she’s literally on set shooting them. Russo-Young did hint that the one project she’s most excited about is something different, a feature about a real-life person that requires a little more maneuvering than she’s used to. “I’m definitely exploring films outside the YA genre,” she said.
Still, she’s got a major soft spot for the genre and the films she’s made within it, if only because they so easily transcend the trappings of their stories. “What’s so fun for being about two movies about teenagers is those stories are also just so classic and evergreen,” the filmmaker said. “Some of the circumstances may have changed, but at the end of the day, it’s about being true to yourself, figuring out who you are, figuring out your relationship to your parents, finding your voice, all the good stuff.”
Warner Bros. will release “The Sun Is Also a Star” in theaters on Friday, May 17.