Tom Lino’s Starry Starry Night is a modestly charming bit of whimsy that hopes to speak to anyone who experienced a sense of emotional injustice during their formative years. Based on the children’s book of the same name by popular Taiwanese illustrator Jimmy Liao, this gentle drama concerns the intersecting lives of Mei (Josie Xu), who must cope with the death of a loved one while watching her parents’ marriage crumble, and Jay (Eric Lin Hui Ming), whose abusive father chases him and his mother from place to place, ensuring a rootless existence. Lin goes out of his way to convey a sense of childhood’s fragility, and at its best, the film suggests through the lives of its young characters the process of insects going through metamorphosis. CG doodles bring Liao’s stylistic illustrations, which can be glimpsed in part over the end credits, to life when the protagonists sporadically escape their harsh reality by imagining themselves entering another world (Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” provides the backdrop for a cute sequence on a train in addition to providing a major narrative lynchpin), or transmogrifying into dinosaur-like beasts more able to fight off the harsh realities they face in this one.
When Jay and Mei take a prolonged trip outside their light-polluted metropolitan neighborhood to see the stars once again, it’s almost impossible to not think of the youthful romance blossoming under similar circumstances in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. Creative flourishes marked by whiplash editing and a jigsaw-puzzle motif speak earnestly to the alternating senses of order and chaos that can be so fruitful and destructive to fresh hearts and minds, but the repeated use of these devices can’t help but drag their obviousness into the spotlight. Starry Starry Night can’t touch the imaginativeness of Anderson’s latest, but it never wants for sincerity and remains emotionally spontaneous despite a number of familiar narrative beats. The conviction of the young leads and occasional stylistic surprises more than hold their own in the end. In the film’s most touching sequence, Mei dreams that her toy elephant turns alive and life-sized, handicapped by a missing leg but soothed by her nurturing presence—speaking to our need to care for others in addition to being cared for ourselves.