All the Bright Places (2020)

All the Bright Places
Director: Brett Haley
Writer: Liz Hannah, Jennifer Niven
Based on: Jennifer Niven‘s novel
Cast: Elle Fanning, Justice Smith, Alexandra Shipp, Kelli O’Hara, Luke Wilson, Keegan-Michael Key
Seen on: 6.3.2020

Content Note: suicide, mental illness, domestic violence

Plot:
Finch (Justice Smith) is going for a run one night when he finds Violet (Elle Fanning) standing on the ledge of a bridge. He talks her down, but from then on, he can’t help wanting to help her. When their geography teacher gives them the assignment to explore Indiana’s sights in pairs, Finch sees the opportunity to partner up with Violet. She reluctantly agrees and they start their tours. But Finch, labelled a freak at school, has some problems of his own.

All the Bright Places looks like a “normal” teen romance film, but it goes pretty dark – darker than you expect from the look of it. Which is probably my biggest criticism of it, because other than that, it treats a difficult topic with a lot of care, albeit not always perfectly.

The film poster showing Violet (Elle Fanning) and Finch (Justice Smith) leaning in for a kiss.

[SPOILERS]

Violet and Finch both struggle with their mental health. Violet’s sister died and she hasn’t been able to find her way back out of her grief. The line between grief and depression is a fluid one and we get to see that with her. But for her, it’s mostly an inability to let go of her grief that looks exactly like a depression – and that Finch can help her with by forcing her to have fun, basically. This wouldn’t work with a simple depression, I think – and I don’t know if the film knows that, or is just hung up on the point of “some people can be helped, others cannot, we don’t know why” – which is also true. But in this case, there is a pretty clear why.

Finch on the other hand is bubbling, full of energy. He laughs and is charming. Then he suddenly disappears for days at a time or loses control, disassociates, has violent outburts. He goes for runs during the night because he can’t deal otherwise. But because he is so energetic, people don’t suspect that he could be really struggling. In the end, he is the one to commit suicide (tasteful, non-exploitative handling by the film here), although he seemed like the more stable of the two in the beginning. The film makes a good point here: we can’t “see” if somebody is struggling from the outside and suicidal people don’t necessarily look like what we think suicidal people look like.

Violet (Elle Fanning) and Finch (Justice Smith) in the woods.

But while the film makes these good points, there are also some things I took issue with. For both Violet and Finch – who experienced domestic violence and fears that he will end up like his father – their issues are rooted in trauma. I would have liked it if one of them just had been ill. Like with most illnesses, sometimes people are just mentally ill, no more reason than that’s the way it is. I also would have liked to see more options for help here. Violet has two loving parents who seem to do pretty well, but there is never once talk of her seeing a therapist or maybe taking some medication. They seem to just wait that she gets better on her own. Finch has a less ideal family surrounding, but he does see the school guidance counselor (Keegan-Michael Key) every once in a while who tries to get him to see a self-help group. But there is no contact with Finch’s mother (who is out of town a lot, but it’s more like she doesn’t exist at all) and his sister (Alexandra Shipp) loves him, but has no clue about his struggles either. And I don’t doubt that there are kids that slip through the cracks, but the film could have taken the opportunity to show that more is possible.

Fanning and Smith are well-chosen for their roles. They have good chemistry with each other and both get into their respective character’s depth and their pain. The film is nicely paced and beautifully shot. The fact that it looks so gorgeous and bright (and I realize that this is certainly a purposeful choice) is a little misleading and I hate to think how suicidal people would react to it, given that chances are high that people would be surprised by Finch’s suicide.

So, even though I enjoyed the film for the most part, I’m glad that I chose not to read the novel beforehand – even though I enjoyed Niven’s novel Holding Up the Universe. Seeing the story once is enough for me.

Violet (Elle Fanning) and Finch (Justice Smith) with their bikes.

Summarizing: Pretty good, but heavy.

***
If you’re struggling with suicide or suicidal thoughts, click here to find a Crisis Center anywhere in the world.

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