Sunday 30 May 2021

Movie Review: All The Bright Places (2020)

A teen drama and romance, All The Bright Places tackles the weighty topics of depression and suicide with delicate sensitivity.

In suburban Indiana, teenager Theodore Finch (Justice Smith) stumbles upon his classmate Violet Markey (Elle Fanning) seemingly about to throw herself off a bridge. He talks her to safety, and later learns Violet's sister died in a car crash on that bridge.

Finch has a short-fused temper and violent tendencies. At school he is on probation and seeing a counsellor, and other kids label him "the freak". But he is determined to help Violet break out of her depression and prods her to partner with him on a school project to visit various Indiana landmarks. She reluctantly agrees, and gradually his animated high-energy spirit helps her recover some joy. But Finch has dark and uncommunicative moods, and as the two teens start to fall in love, Violet realizes her saviour may needs saving.

An adaptation of the young adult book by Jennifer Niven (who co-wrote the screenplay), All The Bright Places follows the familiar template of two less-than-well teens tentatively progressing towards romance with the danger of death, obvious or not, hovering over both. Director Brett Haley delivers a polished package, respecting the target audience with understated messaging and effective button-pushing at the opportune moments.

The opening act is solid if also solidly predictable: Violet is in a funk bordering on suicidal, and Finch is the loose cannon with a good heart who knows he can can mount a rescue. The school project construct is a pleasant excuse for short scenic road trip wanderings combining physical discovery with emotional healing, the self-effacing local "wonders" offering simple pleasure in folksy ordinariness.

The middle third sags, as the tables are turned and now Finch is in emotional trouble. His shift in gears is abrupt, transitioning from bouncy and happy to suddenly drop-off-the-earth inconsolable. As Violet and his sister Kate (Alexandra Shipp) attempt to steer him to a better place, dispositions gyrate wildly, and narrative emphasis is blurred.

With parents either absent or largely irrelevant, Elle Fanning and Justice Smith help ride out the rough patches, carrying the full acting load and creating an appealing couple. Both convey a fluid mixture of angst, uncertainty, playfulness and growing responsibility. 

Niven and Haley then gather up the pieces for a brave ending, teens thrust ever more firmly into the adult world of hurt and loss, forced to make sense of the senseless. All The Bright Places points to the beauty of colour and light without ignoring calamities lurking in the sometimes difficult to discern gloom.

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