Is it wrong to fall for your dead sister’s boyfriend? In the beginning of Josephine Decker’s (“Shirley”) “The Sky is Everywhere,” adapted from Jandy Nelson’s novel of the same name, this question is posed to the chagrin of the viewer. Lennie Walker (Grace Kaufman, “Resurrection”) has lost her sister Bailey (Havana Rose Liu, “Mayday”) a matter of months prior to the start of the film and is drawn to Toby (Pico Alexander, “Home Again”), Bailey’s boyfriend (ex-boyfriend? We’re getting technical here). Grief can bring people together, you nod as an audience member. Sure, that makes sense. But something is still off about the circumstances.
Thankfully, this feeling of wrongness permeates Lennie and Toby’s romantic inclinations. The initial budding relationship between them is portrayed as hopeful and romanticized, but after that, their interactions are uncomfortable, and Lennie is appropriately confused. In one scene, a walk in the woods leads to a breakdown, and Toby holds Lennie and tells her she will be okay. But then they start kissing, and it feels wrong again.
The experience of grief and coping with loss is depicted with complexity. Lennie is not sad throughout the film, but she also has moments of breaking down, of listening to her sister’s voicemail (we will never escape this trope) and smelling the clothes that used to be Bailey’s only to realize that “they all smell like (Lennie) now.” Between these scenes, she slowly becomes happier. She gets excited when Joe Fontaine (Jacques Colimon, “Nocturne”), a fellow music student and the third leg of the story’s love triangle, comes to her house. She has at least as many moments of joy, mostly with Joe, as she does of sadness. For much of the film, she is obsessed with “Jane Eyre,” connecting it to her own life. She gets angry that Cathy and Heathcliff are “so committed to their misery.” The film walks the line between grief and hope, allowing Lennie’s resolve to overcome her own misery to coexist with her understanding that grief, in some form, lasts forever.
Besides overcoming grief and learning to live again, the movie is about how sharing a loss can both bring people together, sometimes in questionable ways, and drive them apart. As Lennie develops feelings for Toby, she pushes away her friend (Ji-young Yoo, “Moxie”) who tells her it’s wrong. Throughout the film, she refuses to realize that her uncle (Jason Segel, “How I Met Your Mother”) and grandmother (Cherry Jones, “Succession”) are experiencing the same sadness as her.
To represent this host of conflicting feelings, the cinematography is vivid and over-the-top. In an early scene, Lennie walks outside, bearing the weight of her sister’s death. To match her emotional state, the sky turns dark and red, thunder crashing in the distance. Animated rain clouds hang overhead. In a later scene, Lennie walks through the forest while her voiceover describes her feeling of being in a “house of grief.” To accompany this, furniture crashes to the forest floor around her. Even the introductions to various characters are excessively choreographed. Lennie mentions wanting to fall in love and, upon seeing Joe for the first time, faints into the arms of the waiting student body. When she describes Bailey, rather than see memories of their interactions, we watch Bailey dance down a sidewalk the way Lennie says she danced through life.
This choice, in theory, could have better articulated the emotions of the characters, making them obvious and visual. In most cases, it does the opposite, making difficult moments less nuanced or, occasionally, cartoonish and shallow. There is no subtlety. With its editing, the film shows the wide range of emotions that Lennie feels, but it is over-articulated. The tendency to hold the audience’s hand, dramatizing and re-explaining each change in the story, makes the array of feelings and themes less powerful.
This stylization takes away from the film’s message of learning to “really live” as well. The progression from pure grief to determination to enjoy life despite grief’s lingering hold is done well, but the film undermines the authenticity of this message by requiring that “really living” look so much grander than real life. Small, heartfelt moments are scarce. When Lennie and Joe play a duet for the first time, they cannot simply enjoy the moment for what it is, but instead must literally float into the air. When they listen to music in the flower garden, the roses come alive as actors who circle them and bring them together. And then there’s the ending, which I won’t spoil. It’s another grand gesture, though, that makes one wonder if overcoming the death of a loved one is possible in the less colorful, less magical real world.
Of course, the expression of internal feelings in the external world of a film can be powerful, but here it is overdone and strips the viewer of their chance to interpret or understand the characters for themselves. It is difficult to explain all the aspects of grief with dialogue, voiceovers and overly-specific stylistic choices, but the movie is dead set on trying to spell it out for us. The film is strongest when it veers away from this, and at times manages to be entertaining, aesthetically pleasing and emotionally complex. Much of the time, however, the former traits overwhelm the latter.
Daily Arts Writer Erin Evans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.