[This post contains minor spoilers for Stars Align, and mentions of domestic abuse, bullying, and homophobia]
Earlier this year, Netflix released an original movie called Tall Girl. With the title describing the subject matter with almost light-novel-like precision, the film was about a girl who was tall, and how difficult her life was because of this. “You think your life is hard?” The Tall Girl asks the audience, in a scene now immortalised in meme form. “I’m a high school junior wearing size thirteen Nikes. Men’s size thirteen Nikes. Beat that.” Now, while there’s a valuable conversation to be had about how traditional beauty standards expect and demand that women be petite and delicate and thus a lot of taller ladies feel left out of the loop by this, a lot of people felt it was… perhaps a bit of a stretch to pass The Tall Girl off as oppressed for her height in the way the movie seemed to indicate.
After watching the trailer with my circle of friends, conversation immediately turned to the fact that she was still, as far as we could tell, cis (a movie about a trans girl who overcomes her insecurities about her height and finds love could make for a great inclusive cheesy rom-com!), straight (“why doesn’t she just date a girl? Sapphic girls love tall women!” – WB, paraphrased, but nonetheless spitting wisdom), white, and well-off enough to live in the American suburbs and attend a Hollywood-pretty high school (and of course afford those size thirteen shoes).
If they wanted to write a story about a young person dealing with the pressures and daily traumas of being a social Other… basically, they could have gone a million different ways, and having their hero be tall seemed like a bit of a cop-out. Again, while this isn’t to say that this character has no problems in life and should stop whining, the marketing material seemed to be working overtime to highlight a marginalised status for The Tall Girl that ended up feeling horribly insincere by the end of things. And, when you’re telling stories about young people struggling in the marginal place they’ve been pushed by societal norms, sincerity really is key.
Stars Align, like most sports series, is an underdog story—it’d be no fun if the heroes were already at the top of their game, after all. Touma’s soft tennis team is regarded as one of the most useless extracurricular clubs at his school, and is at risk of being disbanded to save money if they don’t show some skill at an upcoming tournament. Touma frantically recruits new student (and old friend) Maki, to the point of even bribing him, to try and get some real talent on the team. While reluctant at first, Maki ends up not only joining the team but whipping it into shape: switching up the doubles into pairs with compatible personalities, helping come up with new training routines, and generally injecting some enthusiasm back into the ailing club. Over the series, you can see the boys get better, feel better, and do better in their practice matches—presumably heading towards the kind of tense yet victorious grand finale you’d expect from this kind of story.
The difference is that the team really does feel like it’s made up of social “underdogs”—and not in the “you think your life is hard? I have to wear big shoes” kind of way. It’s gradually and organically revealed across the series that the boys in the team are all dealing with different issues that genuinely mark them as outsiders, and exactly the kinds of outsiders that end up downtrodden by the people in power around them.
These are queer kids, poor kids, kids with abusive parents (emotional and physical), kids with anger issues, kids with non-traditional family structures (be that divorce or adoption). When they get bullied, it doesn’t feel cartoonish, it feels like an accurate depiction of the way certain people are pushed cruelly to the margins of social life and then kicked down. And this happens both individually and systematically, with the impending shutdown of the club serving as a sort of parallel, symbolic narrative about how society at large loves to brush these non-normative, “non-ideal” kids out of the way.
There is a (frankly haunting) scene where the student council discusses the fate of the soft tennis club, and essentially decide they’re going to shut it down despite them showing improvement. They’re a useless club, they say, full of useless people who can’t possibly pull themselves up and become something valuable to the school, something worth protecting. It’s in their very nature that they will fail, and fade away into the background, and thus the budget should focus on more important things. The language is clinical and cruel, and, though it’s obviously on the small scale of a school board, does a great job of demonstrating the cruel mechanics of society at large. These tennis kids, these underdogs, don’t fit the ideal vision of what proud and functioning members of society should be, with their (gender-non-conformity, their “broken” families, their failure to be strong and smart in the particular masculine ways that are expected of them) bad tournament results.
Yes, they are literally pushed to the edges, kicked off the main tennis courts which are reserved for the teams that have already proven themselves successful, but whereas I feel some “underdog” high school stories would begin and end their struggles there, Stars Align feels much more genuine. Each character is actually dealing with issues that makes their life hard, and yet, at the same time, each character is more than just a cardboard cut-out representing that issue. Each one of them is multi-layered, flawed, and loveable in their own individual ways. Their relationships, too, feel sincere and organic and reflect the ways that people—particularly kids—kicked down by overarching systems can find a new sense of family with each other.
They support each other unreservedly through their respective struggles, with a sense of understanding and genuine love. When Rintaro admits to the self-esteem issues he has from being adopted, and his anxieties that he’s a burden to society and the parents who took him in, Touma affirms him and reminds him that his adoptive parents chose him and thus love him more than anything in the world. When Itsuki gets brave and trusting enough to get changed with the team, revealing the burn scar that he received from his negligent mother as a baby, everyone recognises this openness and vulnerability as a sign of courage and growth; and Maki immediately invites Itsuki to come try a new technique, pushing the world to continue on as normal and not halt to dwell on the “tragedy” in front of them.
Maki supports and affirms Yu when they express concerns about their gender identity. Touma vows to protect Maki from his abusive father, to the point of physically leaping between them with bluster and bravado reserved for thirteen-year-olds who are coming to understand how crappy and scary life can be, and are determined to fight back tooth and nail. It all feels authentic, it feels heartfelt, and it never feels like it’s rubbing the characters’ suffering in the audience’s face.
Maybe Tall Girl, mediocre Netflix rom-com, seems like an odd choice of comparison to a show like Stars Align. But I wanted to bring it up because it’s a neat symbol of the ways that a lot of storytellers want to tell tales of “hard lives” and Deep Adolescent Suffering, but, in a lot of mainstream media, end up flinching away from the issues and identity markers that actually make life hard for young people, and end up playing out a pantomime of social otherness with protagonists who aren’t really on the margins at all. Stars Align, in contrast, actually puts in the work to not only portray social hardships but portray them empathetically and authentically, coming away with well-made protagonists who are more than just their complicated home lives (and who certainly never condescendingly ask the audience to “beat that” when their very real traumas are on display).
In blending the classic underdog youth story with sincere portrayals of actual social marginalisation, Stars Align breathes new life and heart into what can be a very hackneyed genre. It’s a story about a sports team trying to stick together, sure, but it’s also a story about empathy, about love, about finding the support networks that can get you through hard days, and about how empathy will triumph in the face of ignorance and cruelty. With the sports narrative as the main overarching plot, the show itself subtly says “see, these issues, these characters, have a place in this kind of hopeful heroic story”.
Again, given the genre, I can pretty much safely assume that the team will come good and reach a stunning victory in the climactic tournament, but with these new elements, I really need them to as well. If only because it will be a small victory in a cruel world that wants to forever brand these characters as losers. I’m cheering for these fictional kids because their problems feel real and true and legitimately relatable, and thus their success will be cathartic, wonderful, and dare I say important (in a way that, you know, a girl complaining about her shoe size just never can be).