There are no tidy endings at the conclusion of Jerry Spinelli’s beloved YA novel “Stargirl.” The 2000 book chronicles the changes that come to an Arizona high school after the arrival of the eponymous Stargirl, a wholly unique teenager who encourages everyone around her to embrace their true selves. While Stargirl’s free spirit — and her dedication to celebrating an otherwise boring suburban school — initially enchants her fellow students (especially Leo Borlock), the tides turn as the student body fall back into their old affection for conformity. (High school: what a time, what a place.)
By the book’s end, Stargirl has been ostracized, temporarily accepted back into the fold, and cast out yet again. And then, something even more horrifying happens: she gets slapped by an angry classmate in front of the entire student body at an especially fraught school dance. Stargirl responds with a kind kiss to the cheek, and is never seen again. It’s a heartbreaker of an ending, and one that even Spinelli eventually tried to tie up in a 2007 sequel that followed Stargirl after leaving Mica High School (and Leo).
For the film adaptation of the novel, director Julia Hart (along with her husband and co-writer Jordan Horowitz) was wary about ending her Disney+ feature in such a terribly sad place. Yes, her Stargirl (played by Grace VanderWaal) still leaves Mica after a series of heartbreaking events upend her social standing, plus an ill-fated attempt to “be average” (she even returns to her birth name, Susan), but Hart didn’t want to conclude “Stargirl” with something as vicious as a physical altercation.
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“The book was obviously written when it was written, and the world has changed so much since then,” Hart said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “We talked about it a lot, with our executives at the studio and our producers, and we also talked about it with the actors.”
There is no such slap in Hart’s “Stargirl.” Instead, Hart and Horowitz’s script digs into deeper emotions and bigger ideas that feel relevant and necessary today, especially in a film aimed at the younger set.
“It comes back to this idea of adaptation, where when you’re actually having a young actress slap another young actress, it just feels very different at the end of the day,” she said. “Physical violence didn’t feel like the message that we wanted Hilari’s character to be sending to young people. Ultimately her message in the film is really important: That your intentions can be good and positive and kind, but if you don’t actually stop and listen to people, look at people, and ask them questions and know their story, it can have catastrophic consequences that you never intended.”
Hart’s film offers some smart alterations to the character of Hilari Kimble (played by Shelby Simmons), best known to book readers as a popular teen who doubts Stargirl’s intentions and ultimately takes out her frustrations with that horrible slap. In Hart’s feature, Hilari isn’t just a ticked-off teenager who dislikes Stargirl from the start; she’s someone personally impacted by Stargirl’s special brand of whimsy.
Early in the film, Stargirl tells Leo (played by Graham Verchere) that she’s recently rescued a bike from a local pawn shop after it was sold off when its original owner (a young boy) was injured. Stargirl has a great idea for the bike: she’ll return it to its young owner, who can ride it once he feels better.
It’s the kind of sunny plan that Stargirl lives for, and she eventually drops the bike off at the kid’s house and goes on her merry way. What she doesn’t know is that the bike belongs to Hilari’s little brother, unable to ride it after his illness, and that its weird reappearance in the family’s driveway has only made them feel worse about an awful situation.
“A really important idea for young people these days is intent versus impact, especially for young white people and young men to understand the impact of their actions on different groups of people who maybe don’t look like them,” Hart said. “Something that was really important for me to explore with the character of Hilari is this idea that if you don’t know someone’s full story, the intention of your actions might not matter in comparison to a negative impact.”
Hilari later confronts Stargirl during the latter’s appearance on the high school’s chat show, “Hot Seat,” an emotional sequence that forces Stargirl to reevaluate how her actions (even the well-meaning ones) impact others. It also serves to change the audience’s perspective, ensuring that Hilari’s disdain for Stargirl springs from an understandable place. By the time the school dance rolls around, Hilari is still reeling, and Stargirl surprises her with something necessary: an apology, the exchange taking the place of the slap in Spinelli’s book.
“Something else that was important to us was the idea of apology,” Hart said. “It’s so funny how many adults just still don’t get it, just how important it is, just the words ‘I’m sorry’ and just how rarely they get used, and how if they were used more often, how much happier and more connected people would feel. At the end of the day, that’s what I hope people get from the movie: the most important lessons, or the most simple, and how we can look to young people to teach us those.”
“Stargirl” is now available to stream on Disney+.