'All the Bright Places': Film Review

All the Bright Places - Publicity Still - H 2020
A refreshingly sober spin on YA romance.

In Netflix's YA drama from director Brett Haley, a pair of sensitive teens (played by Elle Fanning and Justice Smith) navigate grief, mental illness and falling in love.

Adapted from the Jennifer Niven novel of the same name, Netflix's All the Bright Places is a YA drama in which two teens struggle to cope with the darkness in their lives and find love in the process.

Finch (Pokémon Detective Pikachu’s Justice Smith) is in danger of being expelled from school for his erratic behavior, while Violet (Elle Fanning), once a social butterfly, now finds herself isolated in the wake of her sister’s sudden death. Finch’s reputation at school is that he is “dangerous,” known to angrily knock over desks and start fights. But with Violet's influence, we are able to see Finch as a teenager traumatized by past abuse that manifests in the present as reclusive “dark moods."

A poignant, even-handed drama that could easily be mistaken for an uber-earnest high-school flick (think Lady Bird meets Love, Simon), the movie from director Brett Haley and writers Niven and Liz Hannah (The Post) resists any urge to use romance as a panacea for the harsh realities of trauma and mental illness. Without trying too hard, it speaks to teenagers, and also to the teenagers we all once were, about how to cope with and adapt to those first big losses in life that you don’t see coming. With steady performances from Smith and Fanning, the result is a refreshingly sober spin on the YA romantic drama.

In the novel, Finch is much more explicit in his fascination with death and all the ways he could kill himself. The film version, however, softens the blow of his suicidal ideation by labeling him as “the freak” who is seen as “different” at school. We see him holding his breath underwater for extended periods of time — in the bathtub, in a swimming hole — but these moments read more like an adventurous teen testing boundaries than one who is seriously contemplating taking his own life.

Thankfully, Haley (Hearts Beat Loud, I’ll See You in My Dreams) and composer Keegan DeWitt decline to use the ebullient yet subdued score to lighten the saddest moments of the pic. (Including All the Bright Places, DeWitt has scored Haley’s last four features, and the strength of their collaboration shows.) They smartly silence the musical accompaniment in these beats inviting us to lean in rather than tune out.

At first, Violet appears to be the expected tragic ingénue drawn to the wounded bad boy that she becomes obsessed with trying save. Although the first third of the film noticeably dawdles, eventually we realize that writers Niven and Hannah have something more interesting in mind. Helping Violet steadies Finch, and as she finds herself again he allows her to see his flaws.

She then takes up the cause of helping him with his persistent depressive moods. But ultimately she realizes that she cannot save him, and remarkably, that this was never her job in the first place. For a movie that ostensibly targets young people, especially young women, All the Bright Places refreshingly takes care to avoid the syrupy meet-cute fare we’re used to, offering up Violet as the heroine — a teen girl free from Finch’s baggage and transformed into someone self-aware and emotionally vibrant by the story’s end.

The sex scene between Violet and Finch stands out as one of the most thoughtful I’ve seen in a YA drama in the way it normalizes teenage sexuality. Sex for them has meaning but isn’t bogged down by ideals. It makes sense when Violet and Finch get physically intimate mostly because of how emotionally raw they have been with each other, yet the film doesn’t play this moment as a huge deal that merits any subsequent discussion. We don’t know if this is Violet or Finch’s first time, and we don’t really care. We do know, however, that this is something they both want, and the pic doesn’t shy away from portraying their down-to-earth desire. Shot from Violet’s POV with little emphasis on Finch, it adds up to something pure and sweet but not saccharine.

Adapting YA source material into a movie that will engage both teenagers and adults is not easy to pull off. In another director’s hands, All the Bright Places could have morphed into something more caustic like Kids or, on the other end of the continuum, something as breezy as To All the Boys We’ve Loved Before. But with a tight script and cohesive direction that makes for a tender and searing portrayal, this is the kind of streamer that demands easy access without requiring easy answers.

Cast: Elle Fanning, Justice Smith, Alexandra Shipp, Kelli O’Hara, Lamar Johnson, Virginia Gardner, Felix Mallard, Sofia Hasmik, Keegan-Michael Key, Luke Wilson 

Distributor: Netflix

Director: Brett Haley

Screenwriters: Jennifer Niven, Liz Hannah

Producers: Paula Mazur, Mitchell Kaplan, Elle Fanning, Brittany Kahan Ward, Doug Mankoff, Andrew Spaulding

Executive producers: Kimi Armstrong Stein, Liz Hannah, Robert Salerno

Director of photography: Rob Givens

Music: Keegan DeWitt

Editor: Suzy Elmiger

107 minutes