If you watched Disney+ original movie Stargirl, there’s a chance that you haven’t yet picked yourself up the floor, where you lay as a puddle of tears. It’s not that the ending of Stargirl is particularly tragic — far from it, actually. Instead, it’s intended to stir up some serious emotions that only the most cynical among us will be able to successfully push down.
Stargirl, based on Jerry Spinelli’s 2000 novel of the same name, is narrated by Leo (Graham Verchere) a 16-year-old boy living in the small town of Mica, where “nothing ever happens.” He’s content to blend in, rather than face bullying for being different. Then, Stargirl (Grace VanderWaal) moves to town — and everything changes.
It’s not just Stargirl’s colorful, accessory-filled outfits that make her standout. She’s a rebel, sure, but she’s motivated by kindness, compassion, and empathy. Leo first meets Stargirl when she performs “happy birthday” to him on the ukulele, in the middle of the cafeteria. He’s smitten almost instantly, and Stargirl teaches Leo to be a little bit braver. Soon, she touches other lives as well, reinvigorating the football team by writing a (super catchy) fight song and gifting a bike from a thrift store to a child who was recently in an accident.
At first, people are intrigued by Stargirl, and really rally behind her when her actions help the Mica football team win games for the very first time. However, Stargirl’s highly empathetic nature is ultimately what causes her social exile. When a football player on the opposing team gets injured, Stargirl runs over to him, and stays with him as he rides to the hospital. Her friends at Mica see the move as a betrayal when their home football team loses the game.
When Stargirl is put in the “hot seat” — aka, interviewed on Leo’s best friend Kevin’s (Karan Brar) school talk show — she’s met with more criticism. Popular girl Hillari (Shelby Simmons) accuses Stargirl of insensitivity when after Stargirl gifted her little brother — the boy who was in the accident — a bike Hillari’s parents took to the thrift store. Unbeknownst to Stargirl, who assumed Hillari’s brother would eventually heal, Hillari’s brother will never be able to ride a bike again. Seeing the bike was returned to them by Stargirl was a reminder of that painful fact.
Leo, afraid that Stargirl will turn him into a social pariah as well, encourages her to use her “real” name, Susan, and try to blend in better. Stargirl does — for about a day. She trades in her colorful sweaters and hats for a muted sweatshirt, and even decides to make her speech at an upcoming speech competition a little less “weird.”
Except, Stargirl can’t go through with it. She takes the stage, intending to do a speech on internet privacy, but switches midway through to a speech about the importance of finding, and being, yourself. When Leo still calls her Susan after the fact, Stargirl realizes he truly doesn’t understand her...or maybe isn’t brave enough to accept her true self.
Leo is upset and reflects on Stargirl’s words. Soon, he gets her invitation to the school dance — written inside a record player — where Stargirl tells him there is a surprise waiting. At the dance, Leo is invited up on stage by the band, something that Stargirl arranged. The band tells Leo they’re playing “Just What I Needed By the Cars” — a song Leo’s dad sang with him growing up — and, after a few moments of contemplation, Leo starts singing.
Leo’s performance is a hit, and soon, the whole class goes outside to dance in the falling snow. Stargirl, however, soon disappears in the crowd. It’s the last time Leo, or anyone at Mica, ever sees her.
After Stargirl leaves town, Leo discovers Stargirl’s “office,” in his neighbor Archie’s (Giancarlo Esposito) house. There, he realizes that it was Stargirl sending him porcupine ties on his birthday every year, a mystery that Leo had wondered about for years before ever meeting her.
It wasn’t just Leo she paid close attention to. Stargirl dedicated her life to helping people, and making them feel good, in small but important ways: She kept track of everyone in Mica’s birthday, and cut out clips from newspapers of stories of people who may need her assistance.
At the end of the film, Leo explains that Stargirl had a strong influence on Mica after she left. People were kinder, friendlier. Muted greys and blues weren’t the standard wardrobe colors anymore. For this reason, Stargirl became a legend in Mica, and eventually, it was hard to discern the truth of Stargirl’s existence from the fantastical stories about her. As Leo muses in the movie, some people wondered if perhaps the students of Mica made her up out of “boredom.”
They didn’t. Stargirl was very much a real girl, though it’s unclear exactly where she went or why she left. As proof, Leo has those porcupine ties: He was never able to find Stargirl, but every year on his birthday, he says, she still sent him one as a gift.
The ending of Stargirl is bittersweet: Though Stargirl touched so many lives, the fact that she felt compelled to leave Mica speaks volumes about how difficult it is to be accepted for being one's true self, especially in high school when people are more content than ever to blend in. After all, who is to say that another incident, like the one at the football game, wouldn’t have caused Stargirl to face more social turmoil? If anything, the fact that Stargirl left school proved she was as real and human as anyone else.
It’s worth wondering whether Mica would have seen such a strong “Stargirl effect” had she stayed, and been seen as a real person, rather than an entity to shake the status quo. Yet, as Leo sang at the school dance...maybe she was just what Mica needed.
Hence, why I'm still a puddle.