All the Bright Places (2020) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): An earnest young adult romance drama

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Netflix film “All the Bright Places” is an earnest young adult romance drama about two troubled adolescents with each own issue. While I appreciate its somber and sensitive approach to its dark subjects including grief and mental illness, the movie is often hampered by its rather thin narrative and characterization, and that is a shame considering the good efforts from its two engaging lead performers who deserve better in my humble opinion.

The movie, which is set in some city in Indiana, begins with an atypical Meet Cute scene between Violet Markey (Elle Fanning) and Theodore Finch (Justice Smith) during one early morning. While Theodore is jogging along a street, he happens to notice Violet precariously standing on the ledge of a bridge, and he promptly climbs upon the ledge because she seems to be about to jump from the bridge, though she says that she is not actually going to kill herself.

After this accidental meeting between Violet and Theodore, we come to gather how things have been gloomy for Violet during last several months. She and her older sister had a terrible car accident, and she is still struggling with not only her older sister’s death but also her following grief. Her parents understand well her ongoing problem, but they cannot help but feel frustrated as the distance between them and her seems to be widened day by day.

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Discerning that Violet really needs some help, Theodore embarks on actively approaching to Violet. After contacting with her on the Internet, he interacts with her via a number of quotes from Virginia Woolf at first, and they come to talk more with each other. When Violet happens to draw unwanted attention from their classmates at one point, he quickly distracts them via one showy action, and he also volunteers to be her partner when their teacher announces a special assignment for his students.

Although she is not particularly willing to do the assignment along with him, Violet eventually agrees to join him mainly thanks to Theodore’s persistency. They are supposed to select and visit several interesting places in their state for their assignment, and Theodore has already had one certain place in his mind. He soon takes her to that spot, and, though that spot in question does not look that special to her, she finds herself drawn to his spirit and personality as being soothed by the bright and peaceful atmosphere surrounding them.

Of course, as already shown to us during the first act of the movie, Theodore has his own issue to deal with. Due to his frequent mood swings and erratic behaviors which may be resulted from bipolar disorder, he has been ridiculed and ostracized by many schoolmates, but he is not particularly interested in getting help, and that certainly frustrates his school counselor, who genuinely tries to have a real conversation with Theodore but usually fails due to Theodore’s adamant refusal.

Although occasionally showing his private moments, the movie does not delve that deep into the darkness inside Theodore’s mind. While it seems that his mental illness was originated from domestic violence in the past, we do not get to know much about his family life except his caring older sister (We never see their divorced mother, who is always busy outside due to her work), and their shared history of domestic violence is only mentioned during one brief scene between them later in the film. Now I am reminded of what Pauline Kael once wrote: “Explaining madness is the most limiting and generally least convincing thing a movie can do.”

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When Theodore and Violet unexpectedly spend a night together at one remote spot they visit together, their relationship becomes more intimate than before, Violet wants to help him as much as he has helped her, but she only comes to realize that she cannot help him that much just like others around him. Around that point, the screenplay by Jennifer Niven and Liz Hannah, which is based on Niven’s novel of the same name, thankfully avoids any cheap sentimentality, and director Brett Haley, who previously directed “Hearts Beat Loud” (2018), and his crew members handle the finale with enough restraint.

As the main center of the movie, Elle Fanning and Justice Smith are charismatic enough to carry their film together. Fanning, who has been one of the most talented actresses in her generation since her memorable turn in Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere” (2010), is often poignant as she deftly expresses the churning emotions behind her character’s detached façade, and Smith, who recently appeared in “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” (2018) and “Detective Pikachu” (2019), is effortless in his dynamic romantic interactions with Fanning on the screen.

While I cannot recommend it due to its several notable weak aspects including its superficial depiction of several substantial supporting characters (The other notable main cast members in the film including Luke Wilson and Keegan-Michael Key are seriously under-utilized as mostly stuck in their thankless roles), “All the Bright Places” is not entirely without charm mainly thanks to the commendable performances from Fanning and Smith. It is surely sincere to the core, but I wish that it handled its story and characters with a little more depth and consideration.

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