In my opinion, 2020 hasn’t been the best year for new movie releases– especially new Netflix originals. Sappy teen romance flick “All the Bright Places” only helps to further dig the grave for Netflix’s already poor reputation in the Young Adult (YA) romance industry. Released on February 28, the film portrays the romance between Violet Markey (Elle Fanning) and Theodore Finch (Justice Smith), two teens suffering from trauma and defying social norms in their own ways. Through their adventures across Indiana searching for state-wonders, they bond over their shared teenage angst and become each other’s salvation. Though Jennifer Niven’s book of the same title—the main inspiration for the film—was poignant and heart-wrenching when I read it, the movie adaptation not only fails artistically and aesthetically, but also destroys everything that made the book so charming and memorable. Quick warning: there are spoilers ahead.
With any romance movie, relationships need to feel real and well-developed in order to foster sympathy from bingers and occasional consumers alike. Unfortunately, this aspect of “All the Bright Places” falls flat. Their relationship on paper appears well-paced and thoughtful, yet their on-screen relationship progresses at warp speed. Take the opening scene, for example. The main difference between the book and movie is how Finch is portrayed. In the former, he appears to genuinely care about Violet’s well-being and reputation, unlike the latter, where his creepy actions make Violet run away. That said, movie Violet is soon smitten with him and disregards his initial behavior. There are similar differences throughout the movie, which makes it hard for audience members to invest themselves in and identify with the characters.
Similarly, little can be said about individual character development. In good movies, characters grow in accordance with the progression of events around them. They reach a climax in their story arc that becomes pivotal in changing their worldview. Watching satisfying character development is like watching the gears in a clockwork tower click together and start turning—it’s a gratifying experience that hinges on being drawn-out to maintain character relatability. “All the Bright Places,” however, takes that idea of character development and throws it out the window.
Take this scene in the middle of the movie where Violet, traumatized by her sister’s fatal car accident, is chided by Finch to get in the car with him. Instead of depicting her internal emotional conflict, the movie shows her initial anger, only to abruptly cut to Violet sitting in the front seat without any obvious hesitation or discomfort. In that scene, the car accident wasn’t a life-changing moment that isolated Violet from the outside world. The filmmakers neglect to highlight this pivotal moment in Violet’s character development—letting go of her fears—by instead pretending as though it was never a problem in the first place. Finch also suffers from similar mishaps in character development, but the main flaws are most prominent in Violet and her so-called ‘coping’ with trauma.
Adding a new layer of inadequacy to this monstrosity of a romance flick, it’s no surprise that the movie itself also struggles with breaking free of the generic YA novel movie adaptation template. It’s not like we haven’t seen this before. “The Fault in Our Stars,” one of the most iconic YA novels of all time, pulled an ‘unexpected’ character death, acting as the blueprint for the ‘plot twist’ in “All the Bright Places.” Granted, predictability doesn’t always equate to a bad story. The execution could still create a good movie, but “All the Bright Places” doesn’t get any points for execution, either. The non-conforming yet likeable characterization of Theodore Finch in the original book did a complete 180 in the movie, pushing the overdone ‘I’m not like other boys’ trope to the max. Movie Finch’s main defining characteristic is reduced to ‘the freak’ and ‘the outcast.’ Other than heavily promoting his inability to engage with others, the movie Finch’s dialogue is cringe-inducing. However, that’s the essence of a cliche YA character; the more the characters sell themselves as different, the more 2-D they become. In the end, Violet (for her unrealistic characterization) and Finch (for his cringe-worthy personality) have no appeal and the audience ends up with a snoozefest.
On top of the substance issues, “All the Bright Places” also struggles with cutting and editing. The movie leads us from scene to scene in a very abrupt manner. One moment, the audience follows Finch jamming out to smooth jazz music, then suddenly the viewer is presented with a somber shot of a highway bridge with no background music at all. The contrast between the two scenes may have been what the editors were aiming for symbolically, but there needs to be some cushioning before the director pulls the rug out from below and envelops us within a different mood or tone. Another scene that suffers from a similar issue is Violet’s car scene; with the abrupt cut from Violet storming in the house to her sitting calmly in the car, the audience loses the satisfaction of watching her development. Thus, the viewer’s enjoyment is disrupted through the awkward editing and lack of artistic creativity throughout.
Adapting books into movies is tough, no doubt, and there’s a thin line between revising the story and removing the essence of the plot through the editing. “All the Bright Places” falls into the latter category. I would give the movie a 6.5/10 for its overall mediocrity. As a standalone, it’s something you can watch to kill time, but it pales in comparison to the book. The movie’s methodical use of superfluous montages, nostalgic songs, ‘thought-provoking’ voice-overs, and awkward ‘teenage’ dialogue lets the audience know the kind of content Nextflix is aiming for: appealing to the teen demographic to cash in a quick buck. Maybe Netflix will one day take some of their own characters’ advice and be different for once—it’s about time for a new era of well-produced, well-written, and well-acted YA movies to take the stage.