After the incredibly bewitching Hearts Beat Loud, Brett Haley returns with a story that is at turns tender, but also very aware of its subject matter. Amidst the pain of our past, we can find solace in things. We imbue emotions to different people and various locations we’ve gone to. That is the central theme behind All the Bright Places.
This is a sad movie about people in pain. Haley does not take long to cement the tone of the film, as it begins with Violet Markey (Elle Fanning) looking mournfully over a bridge-side. We later find out that this bridge was the location of a fatal accident involving Markey’s sister. The town’s resident “freak”, as he is known, Theodore Finch (Justice Smith) talks her down from the edge.
This is an immediate gut-punch and similar emotional hits seldom relent over the course of the 107-minute runtime. Haley handles the portrayal of mental health and adolescent trauma with a nurturing sensitivity. There is never a moment where the film pokes fun at a character’s issues or uses them for melodrama. It is subtle, but never too vague to grasp.
As the film progresses, Finch’s own personal trauma becomes revealed. His story is racked with pain, but few people try to understand his situation. This results in him being an outcast, admittedly, nothing new in this type of YA adaptation. In contrast to Violet, Finch’s problems seem to be more understated, but just as complex. It would be easy to simply write him off as just another YA trope and, in all fairness, Finch does embody some aspects of the “manic pixie dream boy.”
A trope, regardless of who is using it, can feel very tired. Yet, he feels rounded out by an earnestness by Justice Smith. You get the sense that his behavior is not intentional, but rather a way to conceal his trauma beneath the guise of a quirky individual. His elusiveness is the cause of much discussion, which Violet comments on in the second act.
For as dark as All the Bright Places can be, moments of humor shine through the bleakness. Haley’s textbook warmth permeates throughout in a similar vein to how it did in Hearts Beat Loud. Warm primary colors fill the screen, which gives off youthful freedom that is only aided by the performances. Finch and Markey’s relationship is a sight to behold, even if the two of them have a myriad of issues. Elle Fanning and Justice Smith have wonderful chemistry together, which buoys this story and propels it forward. Each scene with the two of them together is simply magical. Fanning, especially, gives her all to this performance.
The score exceptionally compliments all of these performances as well. Each sonic landscape that “Bright Places” presents is full of warm synths and drums that cover over the heartfelt scenes like a warm blanket. Each location that Finch and Violet find is met with an equally mesmerizing sound texture that can make even the most curmudgeonly people smile.
All the Bright Places is a cut above its Netflix YA contemporaries, but does have some fatal flaws. Its approach to portraying mental health in adolescents is very well-handled, despite the occasional slip-up or two. Some of the supporting cast is left completely unexplored, namely the guidance counselor (Keegan Michael-Key) and Finch’s sister (Alexandra Shipp). Some poetic moments can come off as eye-rolls more than endearing and lastly, there is a “twee” nature to this story that will be a major turn-off to those who dislike those types of narratives.
In a world full of inexplicable book-to-film adaptations, All the Bright Places is a diamond in the rough. It is able to describe in the indescribable feeling of what it’s like to deal with trauma at a young age. There are many moments of grief throughout, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel.