Why Sydney Sweeney is on the verge of movie superstardom

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Six weeks into the new year, and no 2024 movie has made as much at the North American box office as Sony’s romantic comedy Anyone But You, starring Sydney Sweeney and Glen Powell.

The story’s much the same in Australia, where only Wonka is beating Anyone But You in the box office rankings for this year.

This unassuming movie, produced for a $US25 million investment that seemed unlikely to return when it opened to $US6 million at the US box office over Christmas, has since zipped past a diverse selection of well-promoted 2023 movies including Blue Beetle, Killers of the Flower Moon, Disney’s Wish, and The Color Purple, and will soon pass the big-budget likes of The Marvels and Meg 2.

It’s the highest grossing romantic comedy in at least five years. Box office nerds initially wondered why Sony released it at Christmas, rather than Valentine’s Day; with the movie still on 2600 screens and releasing a “Valentine’s Edition” back to cinemas this weekend, it’ll certainly play through that holiday anyway.

Also coming out on Valentine’s Day? Madame Web, a Spider-Man-adjacent superhero adventure co-starring … Sydney Sweeney. It may not look like a romantic romp, but it might feature America’s sweetheart.

It’s a little hard to tell, mostly because America seems to have been out of the sweetheart game for so long. Were they just waiting around for the right girl? Sorry to Glen Powell for the gendered construction, but while the Top Gun: Maverick star is clearly having a moment too, it’s the first-billed Sweeney who feels more like a potential superstar, albeit an unlikely one.

Her beauty isn’t exactly unconventional; at times, her whole deal seems designed to bend space and time so that the pages of a 2003 issue of Maxim might burst into flames. But her persona and performing style is highly specific, enough so that Anyone But You (whose director/co-writer, Will Gluck, simply cannot resist an opportunity for meta commentary) features multiple lines referring to her general presentation, calling her “sad-eyed” and “mumbly” – both true.

Though she hails from the Washington/Idaho border, her voice has what most people would probably recognise as a Californian quality – not quite Valley Girl, more like a slurrier Sofia Coppola heroine who might channel her ennui into sad captions (that might still accompany bikini photos).

The melancholy beneath the beach-ready physique has made her a natural fit for coming-of-age stories like the short-lived series Everything Sucks! and the more successful Euphoria, but Anyone But You, combined with Madame Web and her streaming vehicle The Voyeurs, seems like a sign that she may not be interested in staying in on-screen high school forever.

Like Lucy Hale before her, she seems to have an affinity for the old-fashioned star vehicle, which means playing the ingenue is fine by maybe graduation speeches are a bit déclassé. Though she doesn’t have a huge filmography, Sweeney hasn’t really starred in someone else’s blockbuster, save for a small part in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Maybe Madame Web will change that, but even that non-MCU corner of Sony’s Spider-Verse feels more akin to a blockbuster from, yes, 2003 or so – and an era when stars like Kate Hudson or Sandra Bullock would win fans by falling in love on screen.

That time-honoured process is what makes Sweeney feel like such a star in Anyone But You. She and Powell are both endearing not because of much theatre-kid-style poise, but because they’re able to project some genuine resistance to the misunderstandings-and-shenanigans model of rom-com they find themselves in, half because they’re rolling their eyes and half because they can appear genuinely flummoxed, rather than polishing their screwball routine. You don’t ever believe they truly dislike each other, or even necessarily the obstacles in their way, but their stumbling over them – yes, that’s believable, even weirdly relatable for two fantasy-level bodies.

It’s precisely their limitations as performers, the crystal clarity of their stereotypically All-American yet also Insta-ready personalities, that gives them such a starry glow. There’s no pretence of one-for-them slumming in Anyone But You; it’s a trifle that never feels like a waste of time. In other words, classic star-vehicle stuff.

At the same time, anointing Sweeney as America’s Sweetheart – updating that old metric about half the audience wanting to be here and the other half wanting to be with her – clearly inspires some hesitation, too. Maybe it’s the way she breaks from many of her predecessors by bringing more overt sexuality into her roles, even something like Anyone But You that could easily be redone with PG wholesomeness, in a way that would have put her on a decidedly different career track in, say, 1994.

Recall that Sandra Bullock became a rom-com star with While You Were Sleeping, a movie that’s eighty per cent family comedy and twenty per cent build-up to shy kissing; even Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman plays a sex worker who only kisses for love!

Sweeney taking a more forthright approach isn’t a bad thing – it’s pretty great, actually, to see her and Powell get unabashedly horny for each other – but maybe it doesn’t hit the same as prim traditionalism.

There could also be resistance to the idea of a star for stardom’s sake who isn’t a multi-hyphenate, once or future award winner, and/or legendary institution, given that some of the biggest names in movies remain … hey, Sandra Bullock, along with Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Denzel Washington, Robert Downey Jr., and other figures who have been household names for decades.

In this context, maybe hoopla about a rom-com with decent staying power making its way to $US150 million worldwide feels a little desperate. It certainly doesn’t mean that audiences will flock to Madame Web, which stands a pretty decent chance of joining the list of titles out-grossed by Anyone But You.

The idea that any movie star has ever held the power to bring a profitable number of fans out to see literally any movie is mostly a myth; that really just describes a few untouchable periods of Will Smith, Tom Hanks, or Tom Cruise (and even those have their artier blips and dips). Even the more achievable state of becoming a generally reliable draw has been imperilled by the ubiquity of pre-sold IP; star loyalty is more likely to manifest in a Netflix deal than a series of theatrical hits.

Sweeney’s next test in that department is Immaculate, a horror-movie reunion with her Voyeurs director, wherein Sweeney plays a nun uncovering dark secrets at an old convent. Think about that: The star of the most popular big-screen rom-com in years is following it up with what looks like a nunsploitation movie, which now has a non-zero chance of becoming at least a modest hit for Neon, the hip indie arm distributing it. That’s nowhere near the Sandra Bullock playbook. That, as the kids say, is a flex. That’s star power.

This story originally appeared on Decider and is republished here with permission.

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