One of the many life lessons preached by the well-intentioned, if ultimately ill-advised, young adult (YA) adaptation All the Bright Places is that even in the darkness, light is waiting. The lead teens, played of course by twentysomethings, have experienced some form of trauma in their past, and together they try to find meaning and hope in all the messiness. It’s something director Brett Haley tries as well, with the film that surrounds them layering issues of grief, suicide and mental illness while also trying to invest us in a cutesy romance. It’s a delicate balance, especially for a film aimed at a young, sensitive audience, and it’s not one Haley ever manages to perfect, struggling to let Jennifer Niven’s acclaimed source material breathe on its own, erring from twee to maudlin so fast it gives us whiplash.
In the first act, though, there’s a concept that I found rather intriguing. The film starts with Violet Markey (Elle Fanning) standing on the edge of a bridge, contemplating the fall, interrupted by Theodore Finch (Justice Smith). Her sister died in a car accident the year before, and she has been trapped in an emotional malaise ever since, unable to re-enter the world. Finch, an outsider at school labelled a freak by his peers, takes an impassioned interest in her, insisting they work on a school project together despite her reluctance. The project needs them to travel to different sites around the state of Indiana, and Finch takes it upon himself to engineer this, enthusiastically inserting himself in her life.
Now, his behaviour is familiar to anyone with even a cursory knowledge of romantic comedies. He’s a cross between a Manic Pixie Dream Boy and what’s been more commonly viewed as a glorified stalker by critics who have started to revisit what we’ve grown to accept as normal in Hollywood’s idea of courting. Men who relentlessly pursue women until they eventually grow weary and give in have populated so many of the romcoms we hold dear, and what’s smart about the plotting here is that once the tweeness subsides, we start to learn the truth about Finch. Hiding behind these romantic gestures is someone with an unsteady grasp of his mental health. In the book it’s described as undiagnosed bipolar disorder, something the film never fully explains, and it provides an interesting flip side to behaviour that has been otherwise romanticised on screen.
It’s a genuinely interesting idea, but it can only invest us so much in a film that feels often frustratingly aimless. Haley, who last directed the sweet and underseen Hearts Beat Loud, gives the film a stronger aesthetic than most Netflix teen offerings, and Fanning and Smith work hard at charming us into submission, but their hard-to-buy relationship isn’t quite the immersive ride-or-die love connection it needs to be, given the melodrama of the last act. Fans of the book will know where the film is headed: on screen it’s a development that’s handled abruptly and in a worryingly romanticised manner that borders on irresponsible. It’s hard to explain my specific problems without spoiling the plot, but an event takes place that edges the film into risky territory and that aforementioned mixture of darkness and light suddenly becomes distractingly unbalanced. Embedding heavier, more substantive, issues in content aimed at a teenage audience can have a profound and positive impact, but mishandling them can be something close to damaging and the lofty ambitions here aren’t supported by the requisite sensitivity.
All the Bright Places is a handsomely packaged film that a considerable portion of Netflix’s younger audience might well gravitate towards and, learning from previous mistakes, there’s messaging inserted near the start of the end credits for those who might be affected by the themes raised. But it doesn’t negate what comes before it: a film that lingers briefly in the deep end but remains disappointingly shallow.
Source: The Guardian