All the Bright Places Opts for Emotional Manipulation
In an uncanny moment of self-awareness in Brett Haley’s teen romance drama All the Bright Places, high school senior Theodore Finch (Justice Smith) tells his guidance counselor (Keegan-Michael Key) that his life is “you know, just your average teenage melodrama.” Leaning into the genre’s clichés harder than a teen driver leans into the curves, All the Bright Places earns a distinction only slightly more reputable than “average” -- mildly offensive with the occasional bright spot. Both literally and figuratively, Finch (as he’s known) runs to escape his tumultuous past and cope with his more intense emotions. One night, he stumbles upon Violet Markey (Elle Fanning) standing on the ledge of the same bridge on which her sister died in a car crash earlier that year. Boy saves girl. Boy projects his internal turmoil onto efforts to save girl. Girl recovers and discovers she must save boy. I apologize if that appears to trivialize the very real emotional pain felt by high schoolers - unfortunately, that’s exactly what the movie does. Obsessed with its heavy-handed plot machinations and guided by a north star of emotional manipulation, All the Bright Places minimizes the real experiences of its characters in its attempts to maximize audience tears. It is, simply put, offensive. The movie seems to believe in its own balance. Heavily cross-cutting between its two leads in the first half hour, Haley does everything to set expectations for a two-handed character study. But while their screen-time may be relatively equal, their treatment in the script couldn’t be further apart. Finch essentially serves as a plot device for Violet’s character development, spitting out whatever cliché (“do you believe in the perfect day?” “don’t be ordinary,” “insert Virginia Woolf quote”) is best-suited to the lesson she needs to learn at any given moment. And the events of the final fifteen minutes undermine what few attempts the movie otherwise makes to understand and empathize with Finch. There are, if you’ll excuse my own reliance on bromide, a few bright spots. Early interactions among students demonstrate an ear for the high school experience, including a number of laugh-out-loud moments of wry humor (“she’s my miracle,” Finch tells his guidance counselor about his five-time-deceased, absence-excusing grandmother). The music, composed by Keegan DeWitt (the two collaborated on Hearts Beat Loud), is mercifully understated. And the performances are strong, particularly Fanning, who miraculously elevates weepy, one-note material. Best of all, All the Bright Places shows flashes of depth, drilling down on the emotional and mental tumult that often rests below the glossy, Instagram surface of the lives of teenagers. An early smash-cut from a potential suicide attempt to the doldrums and petty rivalries of high school brilliantly juxtaposed the internal and external lives of the characters, and a late revelation about a supporting character, though a bit clunky, was nonetheless affecting. Teens’ problems are very real, but society often does not treat them that way. The filmmaking fails to emphasize these moments, instead highlighting the movie’s worst tendencies. The buffed-clean visuals contradict Violet and Finch’s opposition to people who “don’t like messy.” And Haley relies on a series of montages that would have been more at home in a commercial for your local community college. A clever, post-it-inspired production design choice is almost erased by costumes and sets that otherwise lack any specificity. Haley’s last film, Hearts Beat Loud, wisely steered clear of cliché and melodrama, repeatedly tip-toeing up to the line before veering in another direction. All the Bright Places crosses that line at every chance. It succeeds at pulling the heart-strings, but at what cost? The briefest glimpses of honest teen life are washed away in a sea of YA-machinery.