Movie Review: “The Sun is Also a Star” lacks “the X-Factor” in screen romance

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They’re both as pretty as they can be, and the camera just loves Yara Shahidi and Charles Melton, so lots of swooning close-ups.

They play characters with inner conflict and drama built in to their “Meet Cute” moment, with a clock ticking towards a deadline that could break them up before they get started.

But if you’re waiting for that heartbeat-skipping moment that big screen romances have to deliver to come off, don’t bother your cardiologist. “The Sun is Also a Star” can’t deliver one.

Not with the luminous Shahidi of “Black-ish” paired up with Melton, of “American Horror Story” and “Riverdale.” You don’t have to deliver “You had me at ‘Hello,'” but if you’re doing that magical “We just have tonight/today” “Before Sunrise” thing, you’ve got to come up with something, ANYthing that makes us root for these two crazy kids.

If you look at director Ry-Russo Young’s credits, you can see why she was hired. “Before I Fall” was a genuinely touching “re-live your last day over and over again” teen drama/romance, the movie that made a star out of Zoey Deutsch.

But Nicola Yoon’s novel foils her and screenwriter Tracy Oliver (“Girls Trip”), pigeon-holing them into a not-quite-insipid romance about an immigrant about to be “self-deported” and a son of immigrants trying to be a poet and a romantic when his parents just want to get him into Dartmouth and into surgeon’s scrubs.

“Not quite insipid” doesn’t rule out insipid touches, like having our heroine, Natasha (Shahidi) narrate her love of “a city filled with humanity,” which she cannot bear to leave.

She’s been in the U.S. for nine years, has no trace of her parents’ Jamaican accent (a pity) and is a high school junior hoping she can find a reprieve her parents did not on this, the day before the family must go back where they came from.

“Accept destiny,” her dad (Gbenga Akinnagbe ) orders. “We g’wine home!”

Maybe a compassionate INS agent, perhaps a helpful lawyer?

It’s a big day for Daniel (Melton), too. He has his alumni interview, talking to a Dartmouth grad who will question him about why he must simply MUST go there and why he was born to be a doctor.

His Korean immigrant parents run an African American hair care store, and pin all their hopes on him and not his tattooed punk older brother (Jake Choi).

Daniel is obsessed with kismet, serendipity, destiny or fate — whatever it is that will change the course of his life. He’s looking for a deus ex machina, a miraculous coincidence to “save” him from a future he doesn’t embrace.

Seeing a very pretty girl on the street with “Deus ex Machina” embroidered on her jacket is exactly that. He stalks her until that moment when a Beemer almost runs her over at a crosswalk, and their fates are joined.

He’s ready for “their” destiny. She’s busy.

“I don’t believe in love,” she huffs. She’s all about chemistry, biology and “the scientific method.”

He wants a day to make her fall in love with him, she gives him…minutes.

The story that follows is meant to reinforce his insistence that “fate is real,” or at least get the aspiring astronomer Natasha to accept that there’s a multiverse where their lives and futures are intertwined.

As the camera lovingly closes in on Natasha’s flawless makeup and sexy haircut, we get it.

The movie, though, doesn’t. The distractions of their long day of missed appointments, “my favorite place” misadventures, etc., does nothing to create a real spark between these two or between them and the audience.

Coincidences alone do not a romance make. No, there’s virtually nothing funny here, so calling this a “romantic comedy” would be an even bigger mistake.

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The most interesting scenes are flashbacks to how their parents met and then came to the United States, and Daniel’s clever explanation of how Koreans came to be such reliable makers and sellers of African American wigs and hair-care products.

The subtext of “The Sun is Also a Star,” brought to the fore as Natasha fights for the right to stay in the U.S., is out in the open but given the soft sell. Shahidi never gets across the desperation that would help Natasha make her case that America “these days” (Trumpism) isn’t treating people like her fairly.

The parent-child conflicts have a little crackle, NYC looks lovely and the leads are pleasant enough to spend time with.

But that “X-factor,” which Daniel throws in to his calculus about whether they should be together? The thing he insists, “Trust me, we have it” to Natasha?

Trust me. They don’t.

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MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some suggestive content and language

Cast: Yara Shahidi, Charles Melton, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Cathy Shim and John Leguizamo

Credits: Directed by Ry Russo-Young, script by Tracy Oliver, based on the novel by Nicola Yoon. A Warner Brothers/MGM release.

Running time: 1:40

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