Showing understanding on screen is a difficult proposition. We write about characters headspaces and their ‘arcs’ but its usually in looking at the whole story, how they mesh with the characters around them or the world they live in. It is rare to watch a film that wants to really burrow into the often damaging elements of a troubled mind. A oftentimes hard watch that doesn’t pull any punches, this is also a film that highlights that sometimes the people that understand our pain are the ones that secretly hide their own. Never glorifying pain, instead promoting empathy, All The Bright Places is beautifully shot finding life in the quiet knowledge of understanding and the empty forgotten spaces in our society.
When Violet Markey (Elle Fanning) meets Theodore Finch (Justice Smith), she is grieving the loss of her sister, just under a year prior. Much like with her friends, she refuses to engage with him or anyone around her, including her parents. When a school project offers Finch the chance to force her into doing something new he jumps at the opportunity even though he has only just met her, he might just see something he understands within her pain that makes them kindred spirits.
Directed by Brett Haley, fresh off the success of the equally earnest Hearts Beat Loud, his latest is a harder experience, a painfully honest take on suicide and grief in modern day America but also the hidden power of community support. Based off the original book All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven, who also co-wrote the script with Liz Hannah it restricts itself around a love story that never feels quite as important as the other stories it is telling. While it provides a needed levity to a film intent on being both distressing and therapeutic it never feels as essential as it should. Haley treads a fine line between sombre and cathartic yet manages by looking outside of his central couple for much needed context.
Their school project, the unlikely gimmick that brings this story together finds the two exploring places in their home state of Indiana for their ‘favourite’ places. Finch thinks this is the little known forgotten ‘wonders’, Violet doesn’t care. This should prove a clue to where these characters are emotionally but Haley hides his characters from his audience through lively performances and feigned happiness. For that reason the whole 1st act is a mesh of fake performances and sunken expressions. It’s all very melodramatic and if it wasn’t for some great performances, it would sink the film before it even started swimming.
Fanning is her usual luminous self, brings warmth to the most distressing of characters and as the film goes on she really takes to Violet’s often forgettable teenage angst, a characteristic that really brings her together, making her both unique and just another teenager at the same time. While the script provides much needed layers, its this added dimension that provides that much needed lift. However the real star here is Smith who is a powerhouse of fake smiles, manic glee and uncontrollable depression. For a character who is so unexpected and scattered, there is a deep apprehension that emanates from his performance, an omen of sadness that shines through some impressively subdued, often fraudulent joy. Both mesh well together but Smith shines brightest by hiding.
In fact, for a film about uncovering the hidden in a world intent on burying it, Haley manages to bring out every ounce of life in Indiana’s landscapes. Be it barren fields to vibrant woodland, his film lives up to its title as it brings out the beauty of undervalued and misunderstood places and people. Violet and Finch might be the focus but this is a film for all the misunderstood and ostracised. Touching on issues of bulimia, self harm, anxiety and abandonment with care and much needed compassion, a film that could easily be exploitative is informative instead.
Honest and moving, All The Bright Places is a bittersweet experience that is earnest thanks to a script by the books original author, a duo of dynamic performances and a director who appreciates the little things in a story with grand themes. Much like this years Lost Girls, this is a different direction to Netflix’s usual offerings because it speaks to a subject and not a genre and that continued trend can only be a good thing.