This is an exhausting review. From now on, I feel I can only review comedies. This is no happy-go-lucky review, but I hope you read through and leave your thoughts below, because if I’m going to talk about this, I don’t want to talk about it alone.
All the Bright Places is a Netflix adaptation of the young adult (YA) novel of the same name by Jennifer Niven. It follows Theodore Finch (Justice Smith) and Violet Markey (Elle Fanning)—a pair of Indiana teens who fall in love while completing a geography project (partner projects seem to have a 99% chance of creating romantic relationships in YA novels, but only a 1% chance in real life). Violet is struggling with the death of her sister, and while Finch seems incredibly motivated to help her get out of her dark place, his own struggle is admitting that he needs bright places just as much as she does. The movie’s trailer would have you believe that you’re about to see a typical teen drama in the same vein as The Fault in our Stars. I feel like that’s pretty misleading considering the entire movie—from start to finish—is about suicide.
That isn’t a spoiler, because when you press “play” and the Netflix logo appears on your screen, the TV-MA icon appears in the top left corner with the words, “suicide, language.” Just as Disney’s Marvel and Star Wars films have a warning for those with photosensitive epilepsy, shouldn’t we also have warnings for those who might be triggered by portrayals of suicide and self-harm? I want to acknowledge that the effort made by Netflix to be responsible in these portrayals is the best part of the movie. They show students getting help by talking to parents, counselors, and support groups, while most films seem to be about how ineffective those resources are. They are careful not to place blame on the victims of suicide or the people who lose them. At the end of the movie there is a link to a site Netflix constructed with resources for anyone looking for help for themselves or for a loved one. They have come a long way since 13 Reasons Why, and I’m grateful for that.
As the title suggests, there are bright places and moments throughout the film. I loved the “your turn” rock. For fear of spoiling too much of the story, I’ll suffice to say that it provides something that most movies portraying suicide do not: a sense that we have a responsibility to lift each other up, but we also have a responsibility to help ourselves; or at least, a personal responsibility to accept help when it’s offered. Moreover, that responsibility isn’t accompanied by blame or guilt; it’s made clear that everyone is trying their hardest and catharsis is possible. The leads are spot-on—both Elle Fanning’s laughter and tears are so genuine that they broke my heart. And if there were an Olympics for portraying emotions with facial expressions then Justice Smith would have Michael Phelps-level success. Unfortunately, their romantic relationship was the least convincing part of the film for me. It was supposed to be the center of the story, but its cutesy nature felt flimsy beside the tragic and painful subject matter.
Ultimately, as a story, the movie falls flat for me. That’s so hard for me to admit; I wanted to see it succeed because of the obvious care and meticulous work that went into creating it. But I think I wanted something else from this film—I wanted the heart-breaking romance of A Star is Born, or the humorous honesty of Silver Linings Playbook, or the perspective-changing story of A Beautiful Mind, or, if all expectation could be blown out of the water, I wished I could have had something like the Anne Hathaway episode from Amazon’s Modern Love. I would recommend all of those 100 times, but not this one. I want to know how films can be better about addressing mental illnesses and suicidal feelings, so please comment below with movies you feel handle these heavy topics well, in addition to being powerful films.
Recommendation: SKIP IT