It takes a skilled eye to make New York City look beautiful these days. With overdevelopment threatening every inch of sun and the subway schedules keeping Xanax in business, the cinematic New York of “When Harry Met Sally” and “Manhattan” has long been a thing of the past. Yet a nostalgic reverence for the city that never sleeps brightens every frame in “The Sun Is Also a Star,” the fifth feature from native New Yorker Ry Russo-Young. The movie is her second YA adaptation, and she wraps her New York love letter around a topical cross-cultural teen romance
In lieu of any natural chemistry between the young actors, however, Russo-Young’s direction takes center stage — it’s the best thing about the movie. While great direction isn’t the worst problem to have, the fact that the writing and acting couldn’t quite live up to their gorgeous surroundings hollows the experience of watching it. Commendably, the story mostly avoids YA clichés (no one is dying from a rare blood disorder). While “The Sun Is Also a Star” stands out in its YA genre, it certainly doesn’t transcend it.
Adapted from the YA novel by Nicola Yoon, “The Sun Is Also a Star” follows teenage brainiac Natasha (Yara Shahidi) on the day before her family is to be deported to Jamaica. After living in New York for nine years, she is desperate to find a way to stay in her home and finish out her senior year of high school. The film begins with a dispiriting meeting with her immigration lawyer who tells her she’ll be fine, it’s not like she’s going to Afghanistan.
Uptown, Daniel (Charles Melton) is prepping for a big Dartmouth interview, one more step toward becoming a doctor, which his mother doesn’t need to remind him will honor the family by fulfilling their American dream. He sets off for the day in a grey linen suit and Jordan low tops, a mop of curls dangling flawlessly over his big brown eyes.
Like all stupidly handsome YA protagonists, Daniel has the heart of a poet, and it alights when he spots Natasha standing in the middle of Grand Central Station gazing up at the ceiling. Noticing that her jacket reads “Deus Ex Machina,” a phrase he just wrote down in his journal that very morning, he sets off after her in pursuit of his destiny.
Here’s where the corny and slightly problematic YA tropes follow, as Daniel follows Natasha to Chinatown and promptly saves her from getting hit by a car, making him a creepy stalker and a male savior in the very same scene. High on his destiny tip, Daniel bets Natasha that he can make her fall in love with him in a day. Natasha doesn’t have a day, she says, and Daniel implores, “give me an hour, then.”
From Chinatown, their romantic day takes them to the green awning of Greenwich Village’s Caffe Reggio, Daniel’s family’s black beauty supply store in Harlem, karaoke in Koreatown, the tram to Roosevelt Island, the J train across the Williamsburg Bridge and, in an unofficial nod to “Manhattan” — the Hayden Planetarium. A highly improbable amount of ground to cover in a single day, but a dizzying array of authentic New York locations nonetheless.
This is Yoon’s second novel to get the big-screen treatment; Warner Bros. also produced 2017’s “Everything, Everything” from director Stella Meghie. Less tragic than the earlier film, “The Sun Is Also a Star” mirrors the author’s courtship with her husband; she’s Jamaican-American and he’s Korean-American. The cultural specificity of two first-generation kids falling in love is the script’s greatest strength, and Natasha’s family’s pending deportation adds a timely weight that elevates the film.
Screenwriter Tracy Oliver (“Girls Trip”) has fun with a few experimental diversions — mini chapter breaks explaining the fascinating reason Koreans control the black hair care industry or Carl Sagan’s theory of the multiverse. These asides inject some energy whenever the film veers dangerously into teen melodrama territory, and Russo-Young animates them with lively visuals.
Shahidi, so charismatic on “Black-ish,” is uncharacteristically flat here, though that’s likely a function of her having to play the damsel in distress being doggedly pursued — albeit a 21st-century version. She doesn’t have much of a scene partner in Melton; the blindingly handsome “Riverdale” star really can’t pull off the wry charm that would make the character work. The movie is mostly on their backs, with a too-short appearance from John Leguizamo, and they’re just too wooden to make the romance sing. The dead air leaves room for a third character to shine bright — it turns out New York City is also a star.
Warner Bros. will release “The Sun Is Also a Star” in theaters on Friday, May 17.