Review: ‘All the Bright Places,’ starring Elle Fanning and Justice Smith

July 10, 2021

by Carla Hay

Elle Fanning and Justice Smith in “All the Bright Places” (Photo by Michele K. Short/Netflix)

“All the Bright Places”

Directed by Brett Haley

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed Indiana city, the dramatic film “All the Bright Places” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and Asians) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two troubled teenagers—one who’s grieving over the accidental death of her older sister, and the other who’s dealing with mental health issues—try to avoid their emotional problems by finding comfort with each other. 

Culture Audience: “All the Bright Places” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching teen dramas that tackle heavy issues.

Elle Fanning and Justice Smith in “All the Bright Places” (Photo by Walter Thomson/Netflix)

If you’re not in the mood to watch a movie about people suffering from anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts, then you might want to skip “All the Bright Places.” The movie might seem like it’s about a cutesy teen romance, but it’s not. It’s about very real and very dark issues of mental health and coping with grief. There are moments of levity, but the film’s main characters always have an underlying internal threat to being truly happy.

Directed by Brett Haley, “All the Bright Places” is based on Jennifer Niven’s 2015 “All the Bright Places” novel, which was inspired by real events that she experienced as a teenager. Niven and Liz Hannah co-wrote the “All the Bright Places” screenplay, which makes some changes from the novel but is compassionately enlivened by memorable performances by Elle Fanning and Justice Smith. Although “All the Bright Places” won’t be an easy film to watch for people who are triggered by the same issues that the movie’s teen characters are coping with, the movie’s intention is to help bring awareness to these issues so that people can get and give help in real life.

One of the biggest changes from the book is the movie’s opening scene. In the book, teenagers Violet Markey and Theodore Finch meet when they both end up on the ledge of their high school’s bell tower, as they both contemplate suicide. In the movie, Violet (played by Fanning) and Theodore (played Smith), who prefers to be called Finch, meet when Finch sees Violet standing on the wall of a bridge, as if she’s thinking about jumping at any moment.

Violet and Finch are both in their last year of the same high school in an unnamed city in Indiana. They know about each other, since they’re in the same graduating class and have classes together, but this is the first time they’ve actually met. Finch jumps on the bridge wall to join Violet and reaches out his hand to help bring her off of the wall. Violet seems a little embarrassed and downplays her apparent contemplation of suicide. Finch seems to understand, and they make some small talk before going their separate ways.

On the surface, Violet and Finch couldn’t be more different. Violet is a classic “good girl” who does well in school, is obedient and well-liked by her peers. Finch is a classic “bad boy” who’s disruptive at school, is rebellious and a social outcast. Slowly but surely, it’s revealed how Violet and Finch have more in common that it first appears. It’s why they eventually become close and fall in love.

Violet is overwhelmed with grief over the death of her beloved older sister Eleanor, who was killed in a car accident where Eleanor was hit by a drunk driver. Violet was in the car with Eleanor and feels survivor’s guilt. And the reason why Violet was thinking about jumping off of the bridge that day was because that day would have been Eleanor’s 19th birthday, and that bridge was the site of the car accident.

Violet’s depression has caused her to become withdrawn to the point where she’s lost interest in a lot of social activities that she used to do, and she spends most of her free time by herself. Violet’s parents Sheryl (played by Kelli O’Hara) and James (played by Luke Wilson) gently suggest to Violet that she get back into more social activities, but she ignores their suggestions. Her parents are going through their own grieving process, so they don’t pressue Violet into doing anything that she doesn’t want to do.

In an early scene in the movie, Violet’s close friend Amanda (played by Virginia Gardner) asks Violet if she wants to hang out with her, but Violet says no. There’s an arrogant pretty boy at school named Roamer (played by Felix Mallard), who has a romantic interest in Violet, but she brushes off his attempts to impress her. When she finally decides to go to a party, she mopes and feels very insulted when Roamer tries to tell her, without saying the words, that she needs to get over Eleanor’s death and go back to the way she used to be.

There are hints that because Violet isn’t as sociable as she used to be, her popularity in school has declined. For example, she eats lunch in the school cafeteria by herself. When she walks into a classroom and accidentally drops her books, most of the other students laugh. Violet’s body language and facial expression show that she feels humilated and doesn’t want to call attention to herself. As a show of solidarity, Finch overturns his desk as a distraction so that people can laugh at him. It’s later revealed in the movie that many of the school’s students call Finch a “freak” behind his back.

Why does he have this reputation? It’s because in the previous year, Finch had a violent outburst where he physically attacked a teacher. Due to this incident and a few other unnamed disruptions that Finch has caused, Finch is now on probation and is in danger of not graduating. When he meets with a concerned teacher named Embry (played by Keegan-Michael Key), Finch is sarcastic and dismissive when Embry tries to talk to Finch about Finch’s problems.

Although Finch is treated like a pariah by most of the school’s students, two fellow students are his close friends and have stuck by him through good times and bad times. Charlie (played by Lamar Johnson) has been Finch’s friend longer than anyone else. Charlie, who is easygoing and very loyal, knows that Finch can be unpredictable and can have extreme mood swings. Finch’s other close friend at school is Brenda (played by Sofia Hasmik), who’s smart with an acerbic wit. Finch, Charlie and Brenda have lunch together at school and spend some time together outside of school.

Finch’s home life is very fractured. His backstory is revealed in bits and pieces. Finch’s father, who left the family when Finch was very young, was mentally and physically abusive. Finch’s mother, who isn’t seen in the movie until toward the end, has a job that requires her to travel a lot. Finch is essentially being raised by his understanding older sister Kate (played by Alexandra Shipp), who works as a bartender.

Based on conversations that Finch has with people, he has an undiagnosed mental illness that sounds like bipolar disorder. It’s hinted that Finch’s father, who’s never seen in the movie, might have had the same mental illness, because Finch expresses a fear that he will turn out like his father. Finch’s teacher Embry encourages Finch to join a support group for people coping with various mental and emotional issues. The movie shows if Finch ends up taking this advice.

The walls and ceiling of Finch’s bedroom are covered with color-coordinated Post-It notes of random sayings and thoughts that he writes to himself. Some of the words on the Post-It notes are “Breathe Deeply” and “Because She Smiled at Me.” During the course of the movie, Finch mentions that he often has trouble keeping up with his racing thoughts. He also has a habit of randomly cutting off contact from people and sometimes disappearing for unpredictable periods of time.

Meanwhile, Finch seems infatuated with Violet, ever since their first conversation. He tries to talk to her at school, but she’s withdrawn and aloof, as she has been with almost everyone around her. On social media, he tags her with a video of himself playing acoustic guitar and singing a song that he wrote about her. She’s creeped out and asks him to remove the video immediately, and he grants her request.

But one day, Violet and Finch’s sociology teacher Hudson (played by Chris Grace) gives the class an assignment called the Wandering Project. The assignment, which must be done in duos, requires the students to write about two or more wonders in Indiana that they have seen in person while traveling. Finch immediately knows that he wants Violet to be his partner, but she declines his request because she doesn’t feel ready to do this type of social assignment.

Violet’s mother doesn’t think it’s a good idea to back out of the assignment, but she’s willing to write a note so that Violet can avoid doing the Wandering Project. However, Hudson the teacher won’t allow Violet to back out. And so, Violet reluctantly agrees to be Finch’s partner on the assignment. She has one major condition if they travel together: “No cars. I’m not getting into a car.” (She’ll eventually change her mind about that too.)

There’s many scenes in All the Bright Places” that have all the characteristics of a sappy teen romance. Violet and Finch read Virginia Woolf quotes and other literary quotes to each other over the phone. Finch gives Violet a quote from “The Waves” that reads, “I feel a thousand capacities in you, even if you don’t think so.” Finch adds, “You’ve got at least a thousand capacities in you, even if you don’t think so.”

Violet and Finch see an outdoor art wall with chalk writings that say “Before I Die, I Want to….” and people can fill in the blanks. Finch completes the sentence by writing, “Stay Awake,” Violet answers, “Be Brave.” As they get closer, they eventually open up to each other about their hopes, fears and traumas that haunt them. They find a secluded wooded area near a lake that becomes a special place for them.

“All the Bright Places” sows the tender blossoming of Violet and Finch’s romance. However, there are parts of the movie that might irritate some people who will think that Finch is yet another “angry young black man” stereotype that’s seen in many other movies about troubled young people. Finch could have been played by an actor of any race. This movie obviously wants to be “color blind.”

However, it’s an artistic choice that brings some flaws when race is never even mentioned at all in the movie. And that’s very unrealistic for interracial couples, especially a couple still in high school and not old enough to have their own homes. Amanda warns Violet to stay away from Finch because he has a reputation for being “dangerous.” But Violet ignores this warning

Violet’s protective and loving parents seem very unaware of Finch’s troubled past. The parents’ ignorance or unwillingness to find out more about the teenage guy who’s been spending time with their daughter could be explained by speculating that Sheryl and James are so relieved tha Violet has found a new friend who’s bringing Violet out of her grief-stricken shell, they don’t want to find out anything bad about Finch.

And, for a while, things do go well for Violet and Finch, as they become each other’s close confidants. But the cracks in the relationship begin when Finch pulls a disappearing act. Violet is not prepared for dealing with Finch’s unpredictability, and she takes it very personally when he doesn’t respond to her messages for days. Violet has an insightful conversation with Charlie about how Finch has always been this erratic, but somehow Violet thinks that her love and friendship will be strong enough to help Finch improve.

What this movie shows, in very layered ways, is that signs of mental illness can be right in front of a loved one to see, but people often ignore these signs, or they think that with enough love, they can “fix” the person with the mental illness. It’s a common trap for people who end up being co-dependent in unhealthy ways. What Violet doesn’t understand is that she’s also vulnerable and hasn’t healed from her own emotional trauma (her grief has obviously made her depressed), so she’s not fully equipped to deal with Finch’s mental illness. It’s no one’s fault. That’s just the way it is.

Fanning (who is one of the producers of “All the Bright Places”) is extremely talented at conveying emotions that look so authentic that they don’t look like acting. Smith is also convincing in his role, but the movie has a tendency to give more weight to Violet’s perspective than Finch’s perspective. The technical aspects of “All the Bright Places” work best in Rob Givens’ cinematography, which gorgeously captures the landscapes of a Midwestern autumn. (The movie takes place in Indiana but was actually filmed in Ohio.)

But this movie wouldn’t work as well without Fanning’s and Smith’s admirable performances. Is there some typical teen melodrama in the movie? Absolutely. But in other ways, “All the Bright Places” is not a typical teen movie. It will make people feel a range of emotions that might cause discomfort but also a renewed appreciation for the fragility of life.

Netflix premiered “All the Bright Places” on February 28, 2020.