Film writer AJ Caulfield has taken the #52FilmsbyWomen pledge, where she will watch one movie directed by a women per week throughout 2018. Here on The Young Folks, AJ reflects on the films she’s viewed — including female-directed classics and new-to-the-scene flicks — in efforts to celebrate female voices in the media landscape. Learn more about the #52FilmsbyWomen project here.
When I think about film, I think of an ocean: Each genre a current, each new entry a wave, undulating in undying, unhurried ripples, crashing atop one another with increasing frequency and fervor as tides change, as temperature and tone shift. We’ve seen swells — barrels of cinematic seawater, swirl-sucking energy in the distance, moving rapidly ahead — build and break, dousing the movie landscape with a flood of pics that share the same premise, only swapping characters and circumstances. The mid-2000s showered us with rom-coms (a startling majority of which starred Matthew McConaughey pre-his Dallas Buyers Club and True Detective grandeur). The late-2000s to mid-2010s did the same with post-apocalyptic and dystopian YA fare (see: the Hunger Games, Maze Runner, and Divergent franchises; The Host, The Giver, City of Ember, Ender’s Game, and many more) and then smacked us with vampires and werewolves galore (which all started with the sparkly skinned Edward Cullen in 2008’s Twilight). Brief moments between surges see the zombie genre creep in with a crash to fill the gaps.
In recent years, a surfeit of sick kid tales have washed ashore — films about high schoolers finding love and fighting death at the same time, ones that feel pulled from the soapyness of A Walk to Remember and spun in a modern setting that has the teens waxing nostalgic and recalling ‘90s bands as “The Greats.” Josh Boone did it in his adaptation of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. (Okay? Okay.) Filmmaker Alfonso Gomez-Rejon struck the same chord in (the perhaps too aptly titled) Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. And in 2017, director Stella Meghie added a wave to the water with her Everything, Everything, the big-screen translation of author Nicola Yoon’s YA smash of the same name.
Everything, Everything has all the trappings of a traditional teen romance drama, and strides closely to the genre some call strange and others find utterly spellbinding. There’s the impossibly beautiful girl (Amandla Stenberg’s Maddy Whittier), an impossible-to-understand disease (Severe Combine Immune Deficiency, or SCID, that sentences Maddy to a life lived exclusively indoors), an overprotective and often frazzled parent (Anika Noni Rose’s Dr. Pauline Whittier), and a bewitching boy next door who teems with possibility, glows with the thought of a life outside sickness, a regular suburban Prince Charming (here, it’s Nick Robinson’s Olly Bright).
Maddy catches sight of Olly, in all his flippy-haired, young Leo DiCaprio bearing, through the massive glass windows that line her home (which is one of those impossibly chic contemporary abodes interior design lovers drool over on home renovation shows, or dog-ear in HGTV and Better Home and Garden magazines). Where Landon Carter (Shane West) of A Walk to Remember was hardened and hard-headed, cold to Jamie Sullivan’s (Mandy Moore) innocence and affections, Olly is just as sweetly shy as Maddy, making them a perfect match — if it weren’t for the barriers that keep them apart, that is.
Not satisfied with accepting that her life’s routine of sterilizations, conversations with her nurse Carla (Ana de la Reguera), book review writing, and model building may never accommodate sparks-flying love, Maddy begins a unique relationship with Olly. The two teens exchange numbers (obtained through a written flyer) and dive into a text-based romance that director Meghie renders on the silver screen in fantastical, technicolor wonder, giving Maddy a chance to brush normalcy for once in her life. That opportunity turns real when Carla helps orchestrate an in-person rendezvous between the star and sickness-crossed kids. Maddy experiences it all: a first kiss, a dip in the ocean, a taste of food not carefully monitored by her iron fist-ruling mother.
When devastation takes hold in the third act, Maddy is left in the limbo between the living and the dead. Things only get more complicated for the 18-year-old when she makes a terrifying revelation that alters her frame of mind forever.
For everything that the film is — magically lit, aesthetically gorgeous, delightfully buoyant, quirky, cute — there are an equal amount of things it isn’t. Everything, Everything, at times, asks its audience to suspend disbelief for too long, threatening to let Maddy and Olly’s love drift into the ether before the darkness of the real story takes hold. As a character, Olly feels underdeveloped and a bit milquetoast; he would have benefitted from a full fleshing-out to prove why we should feel for him beyond his love for Maddy and his saucer-plate puppy-dog eyes. And for some, its resolution is somewhat stale and unsurprising at best, contrived and patronizing at worst.
But for all its faults, the film is worth it for its moonbeam of a lead actress Amandla Stenberg, who carries the film with an effortless, plucky charm. Though it’s by no means groundbreaking and only reworks existing molds in one or two ways, Everything, Everything does what every good (but maybe not great) movie of its genre should do: sprawl out a love story whose joy is infectious. When it comes down to it, that’s all — and everything — you could ask for.