All The Bright Places seeks to fill a void in teenage lives that no amount of content ever will. A sense of loneliness, of being misunderstood, the fear of never being loved for who you really are – or never knowing who you really are at all.
Based on the novel of the same name, whatever nuance the book had (it got good reviews) is, alas, totally lost in this one-note Netflix adaptation. Justice Smith and Elle Fanning features as star-crossed lovers Violet and Finch, each dealing with their own trauma.
The synopsis continues: "As they struggle with the emotional and physical scars of their past, they come together, discovering that even the smallest places and moments can mean something." Unfortunately, the film tries too hard to mean something, with on-the-nose dialogue and no real sense of authenticity to the teenage experience.
There are so many teenagers, and adults, suffering through what Violet and Finch deal with: death, abuse, and mental illness. But no-one besides Violet and Finch (and Amanda, a bit character who gets one moment to show that 'even people who seem happy have problems, too') seem to have any awareness that there's anything wrong.
The guidance counsellor (played by Keegan-Michael Key) starts with a hard-nosed approach to wayward (and probably bi-polar, though never diagnosed) Finch, only to all but vanish in the last third of the film, when he's needed most. Violet's parents are blips on the radar, except to stereotypically chastise Finch for keeping their daughter out all night.
In reality, their anxiety stems from the loss of their eldest daughter in an unexpected car crash. But when Violet's mom tries to express it she only speaks in halted platitudes without any understanding of her daughter. Likewise, Finch's mother is non-existent, always away on business, but not in a 'working mom' way, in a wilfully neglectful way.
Violet manages to articulate some of her own feelings with more nuance than Finch, in particular during a moving scene where she speaks with her father about her grief. But even that becomes a device to advance the overarching love plot.
That isn't to say that love isn't a balm, isn't something that we all look for to close wounds that maybe need something else to even begin that life-long process of healing. But love, despite what the Beatles might croon, isn't all you need – often, you need therapy.
Then All The Bright Places has no humour. None. Even the most dire tragedies have a glimmer of relief, even if it's a set up for further pain. This was one, long note of abject sadness.
Some films succeed in using a less gratuitous lens into the world of despair, the kind that fills Violet's and Finch's lives. All The Bright Places is not one of those films.
Teenagers, especially this upcoming generation, are savvy and self-aware, often raised on the language of therapy. Or, if not, on the Internet where mindfulness mantras reign and community exists far beyond the corridors of their schools.
All The Bright Places doesn't give its target audience the credit they're due, that they might understand the message at the film's heart without needing it spelt out in neon letters.
Instead, teenagers – and we – are given a nail-on-the-head, unoriginal rundown of what it means to be a teenager in the throes of grief and mental illness. Even when the film tries to lift us up, in its bittersweet way to remind us that those we've lost have still changed us irrevocably for the better, it is so clearly sign-posted it's actually boring.
If it were just boring that would be enough, but All The Bright Places is boring trauma-porn. Instead of fostering empathy, it revels in trying to make you sad, and that isn't enough to give the story a sense of meaning.
All The Bright Places is out on Netflix on February 28.
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