Call it fate. On the morning of an important college interview, Daniel Bae (Charles Melton), the son of Korean immigrants, writes a phrase in his notebook: Deus ex machina. An overtly symbolic phrase if ever there were one.
Daniel, one of the heroes of Ry Russo-Youngs love-drunk romantic comedy The Sun is Also a Star, wants to be a poet. But his parents, who run a black haircare shop in Harlem, New York, want him to be a doctor for the sake of the familys name. Hes a romantic; his family is practical. When the movie opens, Daniel and a friend are making their way into the city from Queens on a crowded subway train, and the train stalls. A metro worker pipes up over the PA to tell the frustrated passengers to relax—and then tells the train full of wary rush hour commuters a story about the day a loved one was meant to catch a train to get to work at the World Trade Center, but was made late by fate (or so the story goes). That day? September 11, 2001. The lesson? Sometimes “late” is exactly where youre meant to be.
If it all sounds a little overbearing, well, it is. And thats the secret to the mysterious charms and flaws of The Sun is Also a Star, a movie that overwhelms us with its coincidences and turns of fate, announcing these gestures loudly and lovingly every step of the way, sometimes to egg on the shock and suspense of romantic possibility, other times to simply make us marvel at the beauty of it all. Mostly—somehow—it works.
Just take Daniel. He is made a little late by that stalled train. And so is Natasha Kingsley (Yara Shahidi), herself an immigrant, this time by way of Jamaica. Thanks to a random ICE raid at her fathers work, Natashas family is being deported. Theyve got 24 hours to get out of dodge—hence Natashas breathlessness, running from office to office, making a last-ditch effort to keep her family here, in America, where she grew up. But even Natasha—scientifically inclined, practical—isnt immune to the beauties of the unknown. For just a moment, in Grand Central Station, surrounded by the bustle and hum of a busy New York, she stops to look up and take in the view. Thats when Daniel sees her.
The Sun is Also a Star is a movie romance to a tee. Its overstuffed with pillow-lipped, heart-beaming feats of longing, extraordinary moments of chance, a camera that twirls and rumbles with affection for the beautiful lovers at its center. Its one of those city romances thats as much about the city as it is about the romance, routinely directing its gaze at the warm, flesh-and-blood terrarium of New York on a lovely spring day. Overhead shots of Queens and Manhattan tilt deliriously with love—and maybe even danger. Even if you sense from the start that the movie has a happy ending—and youre not necessarily right about that–the movie so thoroughly dresses itself up as a tale of chance, of being swept up in new emotions, that its hard not to feel strung along by its blooming possibilities.
Thats largely thanks to its stars, and to the writing, which serves them well. When Daniel and Natasha meet (another moment of chance, mixed with some deliberate pursuit on Daniels part), theyre initially at odds. Shes anti-romance, for one thing—she takes the scientific line that romance is really just a matter of hormones and natural urges—and anyway, shes got to fight for her family and barely has time for a boy. Whereas he, eager to fall in love, is set on derailing her day bit by bit. Soon, her mind is no longer on the America shes likely to leave behind; its on the possible future she might have with this charming, sensitive boy, who sees as much beauty in her as he does in herself.
But of course, with the specter of deportation overhead, there is no future with this boy. The curiosity of The Sun is Also a Star, as it was adapted from Nicola Yoons novel by Tracy Oliver, is its genuinely political urgency, even as the film isnt effective in political terms. A romance needs a real sense of threat to make it seem like these star-crossed lovers might not wind up together after all. Romeo and Juliet had their family names; Natasha and Daniel have ICE and the Trump presidency, which goes unnamed in the movie but is felt looming just beyond the movies richly textured margins.
Its a romance that stands out for its immediacy, in that regard, and also suffers for it. Maybe we shouldnt need beautiful young people tugging at our heart-strings to convince us that American immigration policy has already long-abandoned empathy in favor of exclusion; the ironic distance there, between their beauty and the policies ugliness, isnt what it should take to get us out of our seats, ready to rage. Maybe, additionally, love really cant save the day—there are few indications in real life, anyway, that this is so.
But The Sun is Also a Star isnt real life. And the specific chemistry of these two lovers—an atypical pair for a movie romance, being a mix of Jamaican and Korean—cannot be taken for granted. Though the films most dramatic scenes sometimes never recover from their silliness, the romantic scenes are full of spontaneous, humorous delights and the actorly sleights of hand romances need, but which cant be taught. Melton and Shahidi are both hyper-charismatic, and the supporting cast—bolstered by the likes of Jake Choi and John Leguizamo—thrives with a sense of community.
I believed in Natasha and Daniel; I believed in the implausibility of their day. And I believed in the movies mission, however overpronounced. I chalk its obviousness, its hammering home of the basic themes of fate and love, up to the lack of great romantic comedies in recent memory. Its as if the movie knows the genre has been lacking, and is trying to teach a new, young demographic how it all works: Serendipity for the Gen-Z set. So be it. If only the movie could also teach us all how to love.
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