Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
October 3, 2023

Grace VanderWaal brings Stargirl to life in Disney's new film adaptation

By SEAN GLAISTER | March 26, 2020



Grace VanderWaal, who rose to fame on America's Got Talent, made her acting debut in the newly released Disney+ adaptation of Stargirl. 

Unfortunately, this past “spring break,” I wasn’t able to watch my usual batch of five movies at my local theater’s discount Tuesdays. However, fortunately, I was still able to watch the new movie release, Stargirl, from the comfort and safety of my own home through Disney+. In the coming weeks or months of social-distancing, it looks as if streaming and online retail services will be our savior for watching new movies and television.

Stargirl is a film adaptation of the 2000 novel by Jerry Spinelli. The novel has two main characters, Leo and Stargirl. The story is centered around Stargirl, an oddly sincere and socially noncomforming girl who had been home-schooled until her sophomore year of high school, when she joins a public school. 

The book is told from the point of view of Leo, a junior who eventually forms a romantic relationship with Stargirl. Stargirl details how a high school of socially conforming students react to Stargirl as her peculiar acts of sincerity and her lack of social awareness generate great attention. At its core, it is a story about the importance and power of individuality even under the pressure of conformity. 

Stargirl is particularly popular among today’s young adults, who most likely read the novel back in their middle or elementary school years. In fact, my little sister, who is a big fan of the story, and owns not only a copy of Stargirl, but also its sequel, read the book back in fifth grade. She later convinced me to read it for the first time when I was in high school. In my opinion, while the vocabulary and plot of the story itself is understandable for young elementary school readers, its message and themes are quite mature and enlightening, even for the oldest of us. 

After returning back home, I was able to grab the book off my sister’s shelf and give it another read in preparation for the film’s release.

Since the book itself was fairly short (a 186-page, one-night read) and felt easily adaptable, I wasn’t expecting the movie to make substantial changes. As the movie, did, however, make certain modifications, I was forced to question the reasons behind the filmmaker’s choices.

At the beginning, the story addresses how both Stargirl’s and Leo’s respective fathers passed away in the movie. Instead of the school cheering on their basketball team, the movie chooses football. The mascot of the school is also no longer an electron but a mudfrog. 

While these minor details could be dismissed, a few other changes were more major and caused the movie to deviate from the main plot and theme of the book. 

For example, in the movie, Leo and Stargirl’s relationship begins close to the start, whereas in the book this happens much later on. Consequently, the movie misses out on a lot of important events that occur before they are together that help to clarify the reason their relationship sadly ends later in the story. Not only do we not see Stargirl’s many acts of kindness before their relationship begins, but there are also key insights into Leo’s character that we miss out on. These would’ve explained why exactly he’s interested in Stargirl but reluctant to befriend her. 

Nonetheless, none of these changes, no matter how large, detracted from Grace VanderWaal’s superb performance as Stargirl. VanderWaal is popularly known for her rise to stardom after winning season 11 of America’s Got Talent at the age of 12. During her first audition, she sang her own original song, “I Don’t Know My Name,” on the ukulele, capturing the audience with her unique voice. The song itself accentuated her character: She was true to herself, confident and genuine. 

Throughout the rest of her time on America’s Got Talent and her subsequent musical career, VanderWaal continued to stick to her distinct style. In a society with an increasing plethora of social influences, the ability to do so has become increasingly rare and valuable.

In the 16-year-old’s acting debut, she brings her personality and even her ukelele talent directly into her character to perfectly portray a unique and widely loved character, so much so that the best aspect of Stargirl is, simply put, Stargirl herself. Just like VanderWaal, she remains committed to her own sense of self. For anyone who hasn’t yet, I would recommend reading Stargirl for its message and watching the movie to see Grace bring the beloved Stargirl to life.

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