“We're all still teenagers deep down,” Stargirl producer and writer Kristin Hahn told Refinery29 on a phone call ahead of the movie’s March 13 release on Disney+. “Every time I read a story about teenagers, I'm crying and laughing. I'm clearly still connected to being a teenager. I feel those stories very deeply.”
Over the last two years, Hahn has made it her mission to give those stories a wider audience, writing and producing two films about the trials and tribulations of teenage girls: Netflix’s Dumplin’, starring Danielle MacDonald and Hahn’s producing partner and friend Jennifer Aniston, and Stargirl, directed by Julia Hart and starring Grace VanderWaal in her film debut.
Based on the 2000 best-selling young adult novel by Jerry Spinelli, Stargirl initially centers around Leo Borlock (Graham Verchere), a 16-year-old boy doing his best to remain inconspicuous to fit into his Arizona high school. That is, until he meets Stargirl (VanderWaal), a quirky new student who couldn’t care less about acting “normal.” She doesn’t have a phone, wears colorful vintage clothing, plays the ukulele, and has a pet rat. Leo is smitten, and soon enough, so is the entire school. But it doesn’t last. Before long, the very things that made Stargirl special make her a flashpoint for controversy, forcing her to really grapple with her sense of identity.
Hahn, who has worked on over a dozen TV shows — including Apple TV+’s The Morning Show, the Aniston-starrer she executive produces — and movies, was drawn to Stargirl’s quiet form of rebellion.
“It comes from love, she's not fighting against anything, she's just being who she is,” she said. “That's a powerful statement of authenticity, and an important archetype to have out there right now for girls. Give them more permission to be who they feel they are inside, and to have the confidence to express that.”
Refinery29: You’re a veteran producer, but have only written two narrative feature scripts. Why did you pick Stargirl in particular to adapt?
Kristin Hahn: “I was so taken by this character struggle of someone listed outside of the box of conformity, who was homeschooled, and doesn't have a phone, and just was raised with sort of a different world view, and then decides to start going to school as a sophomore. And then, also what that does to the ecosystem of a high school which I find to be very similar to the high school I went to, in New Mexico — I grew up in the desert as well, so I also loved that about the story. I was just enchanted frankly, by this love story, and the theme of having the courage to be an individual in the face of conformity, and having the courage to love someone who has the courage to be an individual.”
There have been countless portrayals of teen rebellion. What makes Stargirl different?
“What I love about Stargirl's way of pushing back is there is nothing aggressive about it. She's the girl who would put the daisy inside the rifle of the man standing there with a gun. She is like water in how she moves through conformity. But I always say about Stargirl: She's innocent, but do not mistake her innocence for naivete.”
If Stargirl is on one end of the spectrum, would you say HBO’s Euphoria is on the other?
“Oh my God, yes. I watched Euphoria and I could not sleep. [Stargirl] is a different kind of rebellion, and it's a rebellion that comes from self love, which I find to be a much more sustainable rebellion, as opposed to, ‘I'm going to rebel, take all the drugs I can find, and hopefully I live to tell the story.’”
Do you feel a special sense of responsibility when you make things that are specifically geared towards teens?
“We're influenced by the stories we watch. What I'm drawn to tell, as a storyteller, are stories and characters who are going through some kind of transformation catharsis, and ultimately offer a reflection of how we can heal ourselves and other people, in a hopefully, not overly earnest way. I don't find life to be very earnest. I find it to be really messy, and complex, and funny, and tragic. And those are the stories I want to tell, with a deep belief that stories can change our lives. They can open our minds, they can bring people together. They obviously make us feel less alone. And that I do really believe in the healing power of storytelling, and that's what I lean into.”
One of the changes we made was being really conscious of Stargirl being a complete person, on her own journey and honoring herself.
One thing that came up when the trailer was released was the fear that this narrative plays into the trope of the Manic Pixie Dreamgirl. What’s your take on that?
“I was conscious of that, the producers were, and our director, Julia Hart, was very conscious of it, too. That's not what this is for us — that was not the story we wanted to tell. We went into it with a clear intention that we were telling a story about a girl who is not a magical girl, who comes in and changes everybody's life, and that's it. She just sort of disappears, or kind of dissolves into her little fairy dust. This was a girl who is very much a part of the real world, and that's why it was important to us, to really clarify that her magic is real. It was important to me as the writer, to write a script that was not so aspirational that girls were like, ‘I can't do those things.’ It's really important that that character is only doing things that we can all do, that we're all capable of doing, because we're all capable of real magic and being kind to people.
“At the end of the story, she does something at the end, that to me, is her taking care of herself, so that her journey is complete. It's not just about changing Leo's life. She has her own complete journey, where she tries to be someone else, and sort of play the game that teenagers are asked to play to fit in. And it doesn't feel right. It's a suit that she puts on that is too tight. So she takes it off, and ultimately makes the decision, that is taking care of herself, doing what's right for her at the end.
The book was written 20 years ago — was there a lot that you felt needed to change so that it would resonate today?
“It was written by Jerry Spinelli, who is the most wonderful man walking on the Earth. And he married his Stargirl. Ilene, his wife, inspired that story. He wrote it from his point of view. But he thinks it's wonderful that a woman ended up writing the script, and making the adjustments that needed to be made because the book was written 20 years ago. The world was different, our consciousness was different. Our understanding of what characters mean and what they do and how they interact with an audience is different. One of the changes we made was being really conscious of Stargirl being a complete person, on her own journey and honoring herself, and it not being about just her changing the school, or her changing Leo. That wasn't enough for us. He was happy that we made that change.”
Recently, you’ve worked on women-centric films like Dumplin’ and Stargirl, but also The Morning Show, which you’re executive producing with Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon. Are you optimistic about where women's stories are going?
“I am really optimistic about the new landscape that's opened up, and continuing to open up. And I do think that women's stories are incredibly commercially viable. Frankly, I credit the streaming platforms a lot for that, because it has made storytelling more accessible, and it has given diverse storytellers more opportunities to tell different kinds of stories. That in turn, has inspired even studios and theatrical distributors, who have to take more risks in certain ways to keep up.
“I'm experiencing a real bounce of receptivity to women's stories, stories we haven't seen before, diversity in casting, diversity in women being hired behind the scenes, with a long, intentional mandate to support women in front of the camera, behind the camera. It's changed so dramatically in the last 10 years, like night and day from my perspective. The kinds of stories Jennifer [Aniston] and I have been trying to get made, and things we've been championing for years and years and years, are now much more viable.”
Can you give an example?
“One of our passion projects, which we've talked about for years, is about the first all-female band in America. It takes place in a women's prison in Texas, and it's an incredible story about women saving themselves from horrific and complicated circumstances, and using music as the way to do it. So it has this underlying joy, and performative aspect to it that — women finding their voice and using it. It's not that every door has been slammed in our faces, but it has been a big boulder that we have been pushing up the hill. I feel like now we're in a place where that story is a big, exciting idea for a limited series. So in a way, part of me is kind of glad that it hasn't happened yet, because now, we can give that story what it deserves, and tell it from a multitude of female characters' point of view, and not just the [white] women, who were like the leads in the band.”
The Morning Show in particular hones in on the gray areas of women’s complicity in propping up a culture of silence and harassment. How does that fit into your mission of telling complex stories about women?
“My interest in telling stories about women is not to just show women as so intrinsically different from men. That is way too binary in my opinion, and that's what's exciting to me about The Morning Show: We're telling a complex, truthful story about the impulses that we all have. Whether you're a woman or a man, power can be abused in a multitude of ways. We're all culpable in that dance we do around power. It's just as important to show how women interact and treat each other in the workplace as it is to show how women and men interact and treat each other in the workplace. Unfortunately, sometimes women are capable of the worst behavior in a workplace. That's why it's so important to really reflect back a story that maybe gives [people] a chance to examine how they are in the workplace and where they have blinders in how they're treating their colleagues or their employees. That's the power of storytelling.”