'All the Bright Places' Glosses Over Its Own Difficult Themes Directed by Brett Haley
Starring Elle Fanning, Justice Smith, Alexandra Shipp
Published Mar 02, 2020Through no fault of the film's stars, All the Bright Places' story of mental illness and young love is unmemorable. Directed by Brett Haley and adapted by Jennifer Niven and Liz Hannah from Niven's book of the same name, All the Bright Places charts the relationship between Violet Markey (Elle Fanning), a high school student grieving the loss of her sister in a recent automobile accident, and Theodore Finch (Justice Smith), a charismatic outcast struggling to cope with his mental illness.
The film's depiction of these issues is well-intentioned, but a perceptive representation of these painful topics is out of Haley's hands, his interest, first and foremost, is in steering the plot safely from beat to beat, delivering sentiment and songs from his Spotify playlists, making certain not to rock the boat.
Despite the film's thematic focus on "messy people," the teens of All the Bright Places seem to live in a world hermetically sealed from disorder. A short-lived fight in the school hallway elicits a palm-to-mouth shock response from bystanders, and Fanning is made to say, "You can't be serious," with an incredulous tone at the suggestion of mild antics. During scenes of emotional distress, the filmmakers value the likeability of their characters over honesty, as if concerned that an authentic portrayal of mental illness would make their audience too uncomfortable.
The characters speak with contrived sincerity that expresses less the presumptions and uncertainties of youth, and instead the patronizing attitude of the filmmakers toward its teen demographic. Instead of capturing the epiphanies of connection, Finch and Markey open up to one another at rigidly defined points, with not much to tell us.
Above all, Haley directs with little care for the image. Instead of feeling tangible, the landscapes of Indiana (shot in Ohio) in the film resemble the landscapes of SUV commercials, and in dialogue, he relies on the talents of his eager cast to render palpable and alive what the camera under his direction does not.
If the filmmakers took its protagonists' protests against normality to heart, tossed away their screenwriting manuals and dug a bit deeper, All the Bright Places might've been the film its leads deserved.