As I settled into the new Netflix original drama “All the Bright Places,” directed by Brett Haley (“Hearts Beat Loud”) and adapted from (and co-written by) Jennifer Niven’s popular YA novel of the same name, it quickly seemed like it would be another mawkish romance populated by tired gender tropes.
Starring Elle Fanning (“20th Century Women”) as Violet, a teenage girl who recently lost her sister in a car accident, and Justice Smith (“Detective Pikachu”) as Finch, an eccentric loner labeled a freak by his peers, the film follows the relationship kindled by the two high schoolers after Finch talks Violet down from jumping off a bridge, grief-ridden after the death of her sister. Nothing’s sexier than grief and fresh trauma after all! That the story did a gender-swap of another trope and made Finch into a sort of Manic Pixie Dream Boy didn’t entirely help either.
At first, this “meet-cute” seemed to establish yet another tale of a sad girl with sad problems who really only needs a boy to swoop in and set things right for her. But “swooping in and setting things right” isn’t quite so simple. The film delicately navigates themes of mental health, suicide and teen angst in a way that doesn’t betray reality in the usual saccharine and sanguine way of many teen romances. It’s quick to sunder the cliché it seemed to be settling itself into: Finch is not there to fix everything, as he has a lot in his own boat, possessed by dark moods and childhood trauma that compel him to disappear for days at a time.
But this also isn’t a story of broken people finding that they fit each other like two serendipitously-fractured puzzle pieces — neither is it some ode to the mystical medicinal properties of love. That would not do justice to the sort of baggage that people like Violet and Finch carry, or to the lived experiences of any given person. Love is great and all, but even in love (maybe especially in love) people say the wrong things, do the wrong things — try to help when they shouldn’t and don’t when they should. Finch is pushy and doesn’t seem to think about context or boundaries all the time; Violet isn’t prescient enough or as helpful about Finch’s ordeals as she probably should be. Solace is found together, some growth is made, but it isn’t a cure-all.
The story is punctuated by idyllic scenery as Finch and Violet explore this solace, biking along Indiana trails, dancing in country fields, swimming in secluded lakes. Those looking for the cute antics of a burgeoning couple will be satisfied by the many sweet moments brought to life by the light, awkward and natural chemistry shared by Fanning and Smith.
But it’s not all bright spots. The supporting characters are vapid and mostly absent, even when played by names as popular as Keegan-Michael Key (“Dolemite Is My Name”). It doesn’t reach the same sweet, contemplative heights of director Haley’s woefully unseen “Hearts Beat Loud,” and as realistically messy as the interpersonal relationships are, the film is still prone to moments of melodrama (though, to be fair, this is almost a prerequisite of the genre). The audience isn’t trusted completely to pick out its themes, the movie going so far as to soliloquize them — something that is especially ludicrous considering how relatively banal the themes are.
That’s perhaps the biggest indictment of the film that can be made — it’s not entirely novel. “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” it intones as Violet realizes that “freak” doesn’t quite do Finch justice; “You never know what someone is going through,” it adds sagely when Finch encounters a popular classmate at a support group. That being said, there is a reason these messages are so common — wisdom doesn’t go out of style easily, and “All the Bright Places” offers a more or less uncommon example of such wisdom in a satisfyingly tear-jerking YA package.