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Brett Haley’s charming 2018 music drama Hearts Beat Loud should have been the toast of Sundance after its festival premiere. It was a sweet, progressive and warm-hearted crowd-pleaser, the kind that the festival has typically become known for launching, harking back to everything from Little Miss Sunshine to Juno. But polite acclaim didn’t lead to buzzy word of mouth which then failed to secure any box office that summer, a sign that for a certain type of feelgood indie, crossing over from Park City to the multiplex has became harder than it once was.
An initially heartening result of its failure was that Haley headed straight to Netflix where a wider audience was waiting. And while he brought a more distinctive aesthetic to February’s YA adaptation All the Bright Places than most of the streamer’s teen flick directors tend to, his film was also a maudlin non-starter, unsuccessfully swirling together a drippy romance with an uneasily ticked off list of issues of the week. He’s back with alarming speed for another one, this time bringing Silver Linings Playbook author Matthew Quick’s novel Sorta Like a Rockstar to life, renamed as the forgettably bland All Together Now, an early warning sign of what’s to come.
Like his last film, it’s a competently directed attempt to graft serious issues on to an otherwise rather anodyne teen drama and like his last film, it’s also an awkward misfire at best and an uneasy and irresponsible one at worst. The plot rests on the shoulders of Amber (Auliʻi Cravalho), a generous and bright-eyed teen who spends her days working hard and helping others but spends her nights sleeping on a school bus with her alcoholic mother (an on-form Justina Machado). She keeps her situation a secret from her school friends although as things worsen, the reality becomes harder to hide.
There’s ample room for a sensitive and serious-minded drama about a homeless teen falling through the cracks of a society that allows so many to suffer without aid and the broad strokes of Amber’s predicament (tirelessly working at underpaid jobs, sleeping rough, hiding the resulting shame from those around her) are probably horribly recognisable to many. But Haley, scripting with Quick himself, is so eager to drown his film in sugar that the grimness quickly becomes soapy instead and any emotional response we might have fizzles with similar speed. Terrible things happen so quickly and innumerably to Amber that each new tragedy somehow matters less than the last and as we enter the final act with her dog also falling ill, it borders on parody.
Amber is presented in such a flawless and heavenly way that I half-expected the twist to be that she’s in fact an angel sent to test those around her, a character whose optimism and inherent goodness is laid on so thick that she fails to resemble a real person. With Amber so charitable and so kind and so beautiful and so incredible at singing, there’s also an uncomfortable subtext that implies that only those on the bottom rungs with extraordinary assets deserve to be airlifted out of poverty by the rich people they interact with, as if she’s required to quite literally sing for her supper. Cravalho, best known for her voice work in Moana, struggles to turn such a cipher into a real person and sadly, she’s rather grating instead, acting as if she’s in a Disney Channel movie, a mode at odds with the supposed grit of the story surrounding her. There are also minor, thankless cameos from Carol Burnett and Fred Armisen which are barely substantial enough to distract from the grind of the plot.
All Together Now is a rushed, barely plotted race toward a feelgood emotional climax that’s unearned and rooted in total fantasy and while again, it might look better than the majority of Netflix teen movies, it’s ultimately just as hackneyed.
Source: The Guardian
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