The latest Netflix presentation All The Bright Places is an adaptation of author Jennifer Niven’s best-selling YA novel of the same name. Dealing with topics of mental illness and suicide, the book managed to ring a bell and strike a chord, but as a film, with Niven as the co-writer and talented actors like Elle Fanning (Violet) and Justice Smith (Finch), All The Bright Places couldn’t have been more aimless.
So, the story begins with Theodore Finch, who spots his classmate Violet Markey about to jump off a bridge. Even though she persistently demands him to leave, he manages to get her off the bridge. Once a social butterfly Violet is now a withdrawn teen since her sister, Eleanor’s death a year ago, so Finch takes it upon himself to help her in moving on, as he himself is looking for reasons to stay alive. He writes down moments from his day, which makes it worth living, on post-it notes adorning the walls of his bedroom. In school, Finch is labeled as a “freak” as he causes destruction and ditches classes whenever he is in one of his “dark moods”.
When their geography teacher assigns them the task to travel to different sites around the state of Indiana, Finch wears down a resisting Violet into making him his partner and accompany him in discovering new places. Perhaps one of the few redeeming qualities of All The Bright Places, Finch takes her to places that are not scenically beautiful, with the intention to teach her to not judge anything by its first look and to love the ‘bright’ moments they bring. His outlook on life swiftly encourages Violet to let her sadness melt away and to embrace life once again. But even as she is getting better, Finch is descending into his dark place.
And while the actors are both compelling and expressive in bonding with us with their emotions, the connection is fleeting for we never know anything about their characters beyond the grief they are drowning in. We never get to meet the Violet who used to write and was a loving sister, – how will we mourn the loss of a person we never met?
As for Finch, his character falls victim to what happens when novels are adapted into films- getting a paper-thin characterization to… save screen time? Who knows. While Finch’s obsession with death is rather explicit in the novel, we are glad that the same isn’t presented in a glaring-in-your-face manner in the film. But what irks the viewer is the ambiguity and complete reluctance to explore what he is actually struggling with. So, when the moment does arrive where a better script would have made us cry, it instead feels rushed and contrived.
While All The Bright Places does extend the message that appearances are deceiving as a person may be falling apart while exuding a calm exterior, it merges the rather sensitive message with a plot that lacks the depth it so needed.