All the Bright Places (2020) shines as a beacon of hope and healing in our ever-growing nihilistic reality

All the Bright Places begins in a slightly shocking way, by simply introducing Violet Markey (Elle Fanning) standing on the ledge of a bridge and apparently contemplating suicide. Fortunately, Theodore Finch (Justice Smith) is out for a very early morning jog and stops to see if she’s okay before realizing he knows her from school. He joins her on the ledge and his new obsession with befriending her begins. This movie definitely checks some melodramatic boxes as it navigates its plot – and while there is going to be some sad topics addressed, director Brett Haley and writers Liz Hannah and Jennifer Niven manage to deliver a surprisingly hopeful and optimistic message by the film’s end which completely sold the entirety of its premise.

A major component of the film’s story is learning about the troubled pasts that both Finch and Violet have had. Early on, you learn that Violet’s sister died in a car crash, and she has not made much progress moving on in the months that followed. We learn more about Violet throughout the course of the film than we do Finch, and Fanning is more than capable of carrying this film. She gives an initially stoic performance with just hints of emotion at relevant moments. As the movie goes on, Violet starts to heal, and Fanning’s performance is nuanced and gradual enough that the transition feels quite natural and perfect. 

Smith has received hate for some of his past performances – but he crushes it in this movie. Finch is an enigma pretty much early on. Violet is warned that he is a “freak”, which doubles as an insulting nickname by many of his peers. It’s not initially clear why, but his meeting with guidance counselor Mr. Embry (Keegan-Michael Key) implies a troubled past that no one understands. Finch has angled ceilings in his bedroom, plastered with dozens of sticky notes organized by color with random words or phrases written on them. The more we learn about him, the more puzzling he becomes. He recites Virginia Woolf, and many of his lines feel like contrite quotes rather than original thoughts – but he always seems genuine. 

Romance is a significant part of this film, and if Smith and Fanning didn’t have any chemistry, it would totally fall apart. Luckily, I felt that they were great together, both in the initial push/pull phase of their romance and even more so when they really started to fall for one another. There are some connections that don’t make sense, and some of the high school melodrama felt a bit generic or out of nowhere. This is particularly the case with the drama surrounding Violet’s old boyfriend, Roamer (Felix Mallard).  It seems to be a potential issue early on, but then he’s basically non-existent until it becomes relevant for the plot again later. There are moments like this that seem to bog the movie down more than actually providing it with anything beneficial. 

Full disclosure: I am a big fan of Haley’s last two films The Hero (2017) and Hearts Beat Loud (2018).  I enjoyed the film…but it was this line: “There’s beauty in the most unexpected of places. And that there are bright places, even in dark times. And that if there isn’t…you can be that bright place…with infinite capacities,” that really connected all of the beats to it for me. Then, not twenty minutes after I concluded watching this film, I learned that a former student had died in a motorcycle accident earlier that evening and just a month earlier another of my graduates had died in a car crash. I also have a current student still in the hospital as a result of an unrelated car accident. Needless to say, Violet’s emotions and struggles in dealing with the loss of her sister due to a car crash connected more than they normally would have for me. With all those caveats, my rating for All the Bright Places is Not Quite Golden, Ponyboy.

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