Author Nicola Yoon’s Everything, Everything requires the reader to think back upon their teenage years – a time when the world was full of possibilities, when you were filled with wanderlust but felt confined, and when the first pangs of true love resonated deep within your marrow. For the target market for a swoony teen romance, it won’t be that far of a mental jump. For others, the ability to recall those moments may prove difficult as “adulting” may have turned them pragmatic, souring them on romance. No matter where you fall on the age scale, director Stella Meghie’s cinematic adaptation of Yoon’s novel transports us back to teenagedom through fantastical whimsy, a soothing aesthetic, emotional drive and knock-out performances.
Maddy Whittier (Amandla Stenberg) is unlike any 18-year-old you’ll ever meet. She’s spent her entire life living in her home – essentially held captive from a world ever in bloom. From a young age she was stricken with a rare disease that lowers her immune system’s resilience. Her mom, Dr. Pauline Whittier (Anika Noni Rose), thought it best to take extra precautions by relegating Maddy to their gorgeous modern manse in Los Angeles. Despite imagining the glass melting away and becoming one with nature, Maddy’s life is pristinely compartmentalized: She takes online courses and chats with peers in an online support group. She reads books and reviews them for her blog (her schtick is quirky “spoiler alerts”). She wears a daily uniform of white crewneck tees and light color jeans. She listens to the best music (seriously, this soundtrack is perfect music curation at work). She takes medicine administered by longtime nurse Carla (Ana de la Reguera, who needs to be cast in a movie about sisters with Penelope Cruz and Paz Vega), who, along with daughter Rosa (Danube R. Hermosillo), are Maddy’s lone friends. However, Maddy’s world – and that of those around her – is flipped upside down when Olly Bright (Nick Robinson) and his family move in next door. And just like that, everything (everything) changes.
After similarly-themed lackluster YA adaptations like IF I STAY, PAPER TOWNS and BEFORE I FALL, I was ready to write off this genre completely. Rarely has a film captured the immediacy and authenticity of youth from its page-to-screen translation. Many of those film felt like middle-aged adults pandering, attempting to pass off their voices as youth. The trick is how to disguise that. Thank goodness EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING came into the picture, as it’s on the same level (maybe a step below) as THE FAULT IN OUR STARS – and just like that film, there’s a third-act twist that drops the floor out from under viewers. Screenwriter J. Mills Goodloe (THE AGE OF ADALINE, BEST OF ME) makes Yoon’s first-person narrative hit home with his ability to make the insular feel profound without pretension. While the film still has a few of the novel’s problematic elements (and offers over-explanatory narration- specifically in the third act), it largely relies on subtleties, nuance and realism.
Perhaps what works best is Meghie’s mindfulness when it comes to the visual aesthetics. She adds energy to the mundane – whether that be portraying Maddy and Olly’s text threads as actual conversations within her architecture models (with the pinging sound in the background), or the way she constructs her montages with a light vibrancy, or the way the color palette plays as a non-verbal character itself. The teens’ love scene isn’t salacious so much as it is sweetly sensual – and let’s be real; it’s something very rarely seen (dare I say distinct) on screen with a mixed race teen. Though it can get a little heavy-handed with the metaphors (like the ocean representing freedom, or the astronaut signifying Maddy’s sense of exploration), it mostly imparts the message with a reserved, quiet confidence.
Stenberg (Rue from THE HUNGER GAMES) embodies Maddy as an innocent minx. Her keen ability to illustrate her character’s awakening, oscillating from wonderfully sweet to confidently sexy is a masterclass for young actors. She’s a rising talent you’ll want to get in on the ground floor with. Robinson (JURASSIC WORLD) also turns in finely-tuned work here, exposing character facets left unturned elsewhere. He can easily be the teen dream, heartthrob-next-door without going overboard on the twee-factor. He gives the role more depth and dimension than the manic-pixie-dreamboat Yoon and Goodloe blueprinted.
Even though this speaks to a very specific plight (a sick girl trapped in a bubble), there are deeper levels worth digging into. Universally teens often feel as if they are isolated, confined in a bubble of their parents’ making, locked away from the wild experiences of the world. However, when you delve deeper, there’s probably a little unspoken commentary on race and how it relates to society too. It’s a leap worth taking if you’re ready to explore.
EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING opens on May 19.