TV Review – All the Bright Places
Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
This film was adapted from a YA novel that the The New York Times compared to another YA novel that was also adapted into a film. That novel was The Fault in Our Stars, which then became a hit 2014 film, grossing $124 million domestically, which is more than 100-times its budget, and $307 million worldwide. Arguably, there’s a market for the kind of love-story presented in The Fault in Our Stars. It’s not unlikely that Jennifer Niven who wrote the YA novel in question here was inspired by The Fault in Our Stars. However, going for the same romantic dynamics was perhaps not the best course of action, given the even-more depressing subject matter. Saying Niven’s subject matter was even-more depressing is saying something, given that The Fault in Our Stars was literally about children dying of cancer.
The romantic dynamic is akin to what some criticized in The Fault in Our Stars. The criticism was that the 2014 film had a Manic Pixie Dream Boy, a character that was the male equivalent to a “Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” a term coined 15 years ago. Manic Pixie Dream Girls are described as being female characters who feel imaginary and contrived because they exist solely to help the male protagonist feel better and pursue happiness without having a discernible inner world or depth themselves. Manic Pixie Dream Girls are there only to teach the male protagonist some life lesson. This term is basically a version of stock characters used in film and literature, going back decades and possibly centuries. Over the past 20 or 30 years though, the criticism against such characters have grown, especially when those characters are of some racial or ethnic minority, but that kind of character regardless of race or gender still feels problematic.
Of course, stock characters are used in films and storytelling all the time and that’s not the issue. It only becomes problematic when that stock character is essentially one of the main characters or protagonists. In a romantic film that’s about two people falling in love, one half of that couple is a main character or protagonist. When one of those main characters is more of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl or Boy, then the film is equally as problematic. The boy in The Fault in Our Stars was a Manic Pixie Dream Boy and arguably so is the boy here. I say arguably because the character as presented here isn’t as bad, but he’s close.
Justice Smith (Pokémon Detective Pikachu and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom) stars as Theodore Finch, a young black high school student living in Indiana. He actually lives with his sister in what seems like their family home, yet their parents aren’t around. While Theodore goes to school, his sister works at a bar. He likes to play guitar and be a singer-songwriter. He’s also into literature and will often write quotes from literature on Post-It notes that he’ll stick to his bedroom wall. He has a bunch of other quirks that stem from what’s revealed to be a kind of mental illness or mental disorder, which doesn’t go diagnosed.
Even though Theodore is on probation because of a fight at school, which requires him to see the school counselor, what we see in regards to Theodore is a story of how, despite displaying a ton of red flags, people don’t recognize a mental illness or mental disorder even when it’s staring them in the face. Either the people closest to him don’t see it or they choose to ignore it. Of course, they do so until it’s too late, which if you know the ending to the book or even the ending to The Fault in Our Stars, you can guess where it’s going. This is fine, but the film doesn’t do enough to put us in the shoes of Theodore and fully understand him. It’s not as bad as The Fault in Our Stars, which is probably unfair because dealing with cancer is different than dealing with a mental illness. In this film’s defense, the back half pivots and tries to give us more of Theodore’s perspective, but, for the majority of the time we’re in Manic Pixie Dream Boy territory.
Elle Fanning (Maleficent and Super 8) also stars as Violet Markey, a young white, high school student also living in Indiana. She lives with her parents who aren’t absent but attentive and also seem fairly wealthy. Violet though is a depressed girl. She has been ever since her sister died in a car accident. She hasn’t been dealing with it very well. As the Manic Pixie Dream Boy does, he comes to rescue her from her depression and help her embrace life again. Because her sister died in a car crash, Violet doesn’t want to ride in a car ever again, so it’s a fairly easy guess what the Manic Pixie Dream Boy will get her to do at some point in the film. All of that is predictable and boring.
The film fills its run time with a travelogue where Theodore and Violet go around various parts of the state of Indiana, on a sightseeing tour. If one has never been to Indiana, there’s more to it than motorsports and Notre Dame. There are six places that the film highlights, which are quite notable. They include Indiana’s High Point at Hoosier Hill, the “Before I Die” wall, the Blue Flash Backyard Roller Coaster, the Shoe Tree in Milltown, the Blue Hole in Prairieton and the Traveler’s Prayer Chapel. They seem like places that only someone born and raised in Indiana would know, but, I wish the film did a better job of connecting all of them to the characters. Theodore leads Violet to all of these places, almost at random, which makes the whole thing feel rather random, or else hollow and contrived.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 48 mins.
Available on Netflix.