All The Bright Places tells the story of two teenagers in Indiana.
Violet Markey (Elle Fanning) is pretty, popular, and secretly very depressed. She’s still recovering from the death of her sister and her friends aren’t being particularly helpful. (At one point, her boyfriend asks how much longer she’s going to be depressed because she’s “been this way for a really long time.”) Violet lives in a nice, comfortable home and probably has a bright future ahead of her but she can’t communicate how she’s feeling to her parents (Luke Wilson and Kelli O’Hara), who are dealing with their grief in their own ways.
Finch (Justice Smith) is a student who is viewed, by his classmates, as being something of a freak. Unlike Violet, who holds back her emotions, Finch doesn’t hold back his feelings and, as a result, it’s gotten him in trouble. If not for a somewhat sympathetic principal (Keegan-Michael Key), Finch probably would have been expelled a while ago. As it is, he’s on probation and he’s running the risk of not graduating. Finch lives with his sister (Alexandra Shipp). Their parents are pretty much not in the picture.
One night, Finch happens to see Violet standing on a bridge and thinking about jumping. From that moment, an unexpected relationship begins. Though Violet is, at first, hesitant to open up to Finch (or anyone else, for that matter), Finch continues to try to talk to her. Eventually, for a class, they’re assigned to do a report on the wonders of Indiana. Soon, they’re going from location to location and Violet is slowly starting to enjoy life again while Finch encourage her to open up about her feelings and to once again start writing….
And, at this point, you’re probably thinking that this just a typical YA film, one that’s only distinguished by the fact that, instead of having a manic pixie dream girl, it has a manic pixie dream guy. That was certainly how I felt during the first third of this film. However, All The Bright Places is too smart of a film to settle for telling such a simple story and Finch is too complex of a character to be dismissed as a trope. Even as Violet gets better, Finch’s own behavior grows more erratic. (In fact, it could be argued that this film’s greatest contribution to the cultural discussion is its attempt to seriously explore what would cause someone to become a manic pixie dream person in the first place.) When events conspire to cause Violet and Finch to be separated, it leads to tragedy.
It’s a sweet-natured and poignant film, one that sensitively explores depression and mental illness. It’s also a film that understands how, when you’re a certain age and even if you’re not also having to deal with burdens of depression and anxiety, almost anything can seem like the end of the world. It takes its character’s seriously and it doesn’t pander to its audience with any shallow promises about how things are magically going to get better once they graduate high school and head off to college. At the same time, it’s also a very life-affirming film, one that encourages us to celebrate life and experience it while we can.
Elle Faning and especially Justice Smith give two achingly sincere and touching performances. I was especially impressed with the work of Smith. Smith plays up Finch’s intelligence and his curiosity about the world while, at the same time, also showing why Finch’s attention might occasionally be a bit overwhelming. I look forward to seeing what he does in the future.