All The Bright Places is a failed coming-of-age film. The backwards love story disturbingly intertwines the lives of angsty teens Violet Markey (Elle Fanning) and Theodore Finch (Justice Smith) as they navigate past trauma and tough realities.
The romanticisation of what looked like a suicide attempt was an uneasy opening to All The Bright Places. The idea of a magical love fix for mental illness left me wary of this film from the beginning. Throughout the film Finch continued to serve as the only remedy to Markey’s anxieties, which felt uncomfortable to watch.
It was off-putting to see Markey’s pain portrayed as something only Finch could fix. Plots that focus on a magical mental illness ‘cure’ can be damaging to audiences as it sends the wrong message; there should be trigger warnings to heed when people, especially young people, consume this type of media.
Even in the filming choices and visual effects, it was evident that Finch was truly the only source of Markey’s solace. The film is shot with a bluey-grey veil as if the audience was watching from outside a window on a rainy day. This veil is only lifted when Markey and Finch are together.
Markey also only laughs, sings and dances around Finch. It comes across a bit predatory as Finch knows that Markey is mourning the death of her sister, yet he still takes it upon himself to make her his personal love conquest. Then after sucking her into his odd world, it becomes inescapable. Quickly, Markey becomes the bearer of not only her own mourning, but now she is also responsible for navigating Finch’s unravelling mental health too. This shift in dynamics of caregiver and caretaker felt a little twisted, which left a gut-wrenching pit in my stomach as the film layered on more uncomfortable scenes between them.
The director, Brett Haley, stuck to fairly conventional scenes for character development. Markey was portrayed as an extremely quiet character in the beginning. I longed for some originality in creating the persona of this broken down teen, scarred by the death of her sister. Haley stuck to the traditional high school formula that has pushed the “outsider” character for years. In the early stages of the film, Violet drops her books in front of the class and in response the students erupt in laughter. This was followed by a stream of cliché high school scenes that felt tired out and recycled.
I also have yet to see social media integrated effectively into a movie and All The Bright Places was no exception. Finch uses an Instagram livestream to ask Markey to hang out. This was supposed to be endearing, but it seemed odd and out of place. Without keeping reality in mind, the use of social media in movies pulls the audience member out of the cinematic world that has been created. In this instance, I was left asking what exactly the intention of using Instagram was in this scene. Would it not have made sense for them to just meet up? Or to send her a direct message? All The Bright Places struggled to continue a seamless story at the beginning of the film, as it was continually interrupted by scenes involving awkward social media encounters that broke the stream of organic, human interactions.
A real highlight of this film was Justice Smith. Smith, as Theodore Finch, was a refreshing male lead. He is not the conventional hunky male love interest, but a scrawny, gaptoothed boy. He played the erratic, unstable Finch well, from the uneasy smiles he only shared with himself to the dead glances he lost himself in when zoning out of reality.
The upsetting ending was touching and offered some redemption to this film. Elle Fanning’s acting remained mundane throughout most of All The Bright Places, but in the closing scenes she met the difficult conclusion with incredible emotion. Fanning’s sobbing could pierce anyone’s heart and her dissolute eyes broke the barrier of film and reality.
The recycled high school cafeteria scenes and surface level character development made this film an overall miss. There were glimpses of sincerity, but they were short and fleeting. On top of the lack of complexity, the portrayal of mental health throughout the film felt reckless. The ending scenes did offer some redemption, as they displayed emotion and sincerity, but the majority of the film lacked either one.