Thursday, March 12, 2020

The Generic Qualities of All The Bright Places Weigh Down Its Better Aspects

The first time the protagonists of All the Bright Places, Violet (Elle Fanning) and Finch (Justice Smith), meet, Finch has to talk Violet down from a ledge. Literally. The duo cross path's when Finch's running routine happens to pass right by Violet preparing to commit suicide by leaping off a bridge. Finch manages to coerce Violet to not take her own life and the duo proceeds to embark on a traditional day of High School. Such a day includes a History class that they happen to share and one that has just assigned a group activity consisting of students pairing off and then examining historical landmarks in the nearby area. Finch is adamant that he and Violet do the project together but Violet is determined to withdraw herself from all other people in the wake of her sister's death a year ago.

Finch is a pushy fellow, though, and that means he's able to eventually convince Violet to join him on this school project. From there, romance blossoms that see the two of them coming to terms with each other's mental health-related issues. For Finch, such issues emerge in the form of erratic behavior stemming from trauma related to an abusive father while Violet has the aforementioned social withdrawal emerging from her sister's death. In exploring these sides of its lead characters, All The Bright Place's screenplay by Jennifer Niven and Liz Hannah (based on a book of the same name by Niven) tends to go to dark places. However, one issue with the film is that it could stand to tackle these elements in a more specifically-detailed fashion.

A scene in the third act of Finch attending a support group for other teenagers suffering from assorted mental disorders features this character introducing himself by saying that he doesn't use "labels" for any of his mental health issues. Now, there are certainly plenty of people in real life who approach their mental health problems in the same manner as Finch. However, in the context of this specific film, such a move can't help but feel a bit like a cop-out akin to how movies refuse to diagnose characters exhibiting traits associated with Autism as Autistic. Such screenwriting moves tend to stem from writers wanting to utilize symptoms of mental health problems or mental disorders to generate drama but they don't want to be boxed in by having to adhere to actual symptoms of bipolar disorder, for instance.

It's a narrative shortcut that might make things easier when writing a script but when watching a movie like All the Bright Places, it proves to be a problem. Going this route means Finch is frequently a hodgepodge of eccentric behavior traits, like quoting classic novelists or vanishing abruptly for days at a time, rather than someone with a mental health condition from recognizable reality. A highly predictable conclusion for the character only compounds how Finch frequently comes across as a Hollywood version of any generic mental health issue rather than as a compelling character in his own right. The writing of this character is disappointing in a number of areas but it's especially discouraging considering that Justice Smith actually delivers solid work in the lead role.

Whereas the screenplay struggles to make Finch a distinctive person, Smith's performance oozes a unique sense of charm and it's especially interesting how well he's able to convey a sense of warmth even when he's pushing Violet to step outside of her comfort zone. Playing opposite Smith is Elle Fanning, an actor whose experience in a number of recent weighty dramas means she's more than up for the grim material that Violet must navigate throughout All the Bright Places. Both Smith and Fanning deliver commendable work on their own merits while their chemistry together is similarly solid. Particularly noteworthy in their rapport is how they lend equal levels of believability to both their originally frigid dynamic as well as their eventual romantic chemistry. 

Directing these two performers is Brett Haley, a director who moves up from scrappy indie fare like The Hero and last years exceedingly wonderful Hearts Beat Loud to the levels of reasonably budgeted studio fare with All the Bright Places. Haley's always had a sense of humanism in his works that have previously explored aging Western stars as well as complex Father/Daughter relationships, so it's no surprise that he's a fine fit for a project all about two wayward High School souls trying to understand each other as people. That having been said, Haley does sometimes struggle to provide a proper sense of balance in what's easily his most thematically weighty project to date. Specifically, the more frothy romantic drama material can feel at odds with the portions of All the Bright Places that delve deeper into the struggles of people living with mental health issues. This is where the lack of more specifically detailed characters really hurts the project, those kinds of details could have helped provide unity between these two parts of All the Bright Places. There's enough successful aspects in play to make All the Bright Places a perfectly passable YA-drama but it's frustrating to see how it could have easily been a whole lot more than that.

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