Monday, 27 November 2017

Everything, Everything (Stella Meghie, 2017)

Based on the novel by Nicola Yoon, Maddy (Amndla Stenberg) is a young woman confined to her air-tight home by SCID, a condition that means her immune system is too weak to handle the outside world. With only her mother Pauline (Anika Noni Rose) and nurse Carla (Ana de la Reguera) for company, Maddy yearns for a chance to experience the outside world.

When Olly (Nick Robinson) moves in next door, Maddy's desire to escape gains a newfound urgency. But will love trump genetics?

Growing up, I was voracious consumer of anything my parents were into - so when I wasn't watching Arnold Schwarzengger wiping out whole countries or reading Robert Louis Stevenson I'd spend time watching Audrey Hepburn movies with my mum and poaching whatever romance novel she was reading (Chocolat and Bridget Jones' Diary). I caught the bug. There is something about a romantic melodrama, particularly one with a contrived premise like this that always pulls me in. 

While I was totally game for this kind of potboiler, going in there was something I was worried was going to happen.

Every time one of these movies come out, where someone with an illness or disability (e.g. A Walk To Remember; last year's Me Before You) is involved in a romance, they are never the central character and their role is to act as a catalyst for their non-impaired paramour to learn something profound about life and loss and blah blah blah.

From the jump, this looked like another one of those stories. But to this movie's credit, it does not follow that template too closely. Whether it plays into the underlying ideology of those stories - well, we will get to that.  

First the good stuff. Number one is that this is a mainstream movie directed by and starring WOC, based on a book by a black female writer. It was also a hit, so hopefully we shall see some ripple effects for other YA movies featuring people of colour both in front of and behind the scenes. 

Stella Meghie's direction is really good, especially considering the limitations of the story: as well as the focus on single location, the central relationship is dependent on conversations via text message. Most of Maddy and Olly's early text interactions are dramatised as Maddy's fantasies of meeting Olly in the model environments (a diner, a library) that she builds for school.

These sequences are probably the best thing in the movie, as they allow the viewer to identify with the characters' growing attraction without having to wade through endless shots of text bubbles covering every line of dialogue. Because they are so dramatically satisfying - the actors have good chemistry - this stylistic choice never comes off as contrived.

Meghie is aided by DOP Igor Jodue-Lillo (The Kids Are All Right and Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy), who gives the movie a warm, rich colour palette that leans into the movie's heightened sense of melodrama. It could have been overdone, but with a movie as earnest as this, it works.  

One of the key reasons why I liked this movie is that, despite her physical immobility, Maddy is the prime mover of the movie's plot. The movie is rooted in her POV, and she never allows herself to be defined by her disability. While looks play a part (duh), it is to see why Olly falls for her. She even calls him out when it looks like he is pitying her. 

Another thing I liked about this movie was the fact that the movie does not end with Maddy dying. I was afraid that was going to happen, and while I have some problems with the way it was done (see the next paragraph), the fact that we did not have that trope was  a plus.

But that is where we get the final twist - haunted by her husband and son's deaths, Pauline faked her daughter's condition to protect her from the world. While it feels like an extreme extension of Pauline's over-protectiveness, I did not know what that turn meant in terms of what the film was trying to say.

Maddy wants to experience the outside world, but I could not track any big difference in terms of how this twist reveals what her character really wants. All it does is give Maddy another reason to become independent, but she already wants that. While it is not as egregious as a few twists I could mention, it does not feel that natural - it just felt like a way to get the characters together in a traditional happy ending.

If the movie's focus had been on the relationship between Maddy and her mother, then the twist could have been used as a catalyst for Maddy's breaking away on her own. But the movie is more interested in the love story, and leaves this relationship to one side. Basically, the twist ends up feeling underwhelming, because it feels like it is the culmination of a different movie. Pauline ends up as a minor obstacle - one that is too easily overcome.

So in a way the movie does fall into the ableist trap - it's just instead of the message being 'life is too hard to live', it is ' good thing you are not sick so you can have a happy ending'. It is not a killer blow  but does strike a bit of a bum note.

As far as the acting goes, Anika Noni Rose steals the show. Even with the plot twist, she never comes off as a villain. Even when she is putting the kibosh on Maddy's dreams of romance, she remains incredibly empathetic - it never feels like Pauline is operating from a sense of malice. It is always from a place of love. 

The scenes where she talks to Maddy about her infatuation are great, as she navigates between motherly affection for this milestone in her daughter's life, and her own need to protect her from these attachments. The moment where she tells Maddy that Olly will never be 'hers', and that he will eventually move away and find someone else never feels cruel (at least not until the twist) - Pauline is just trying to protect her daughter from the heartbreak she knows is coming.  

When the movie is just about a woman trying to help her daughter navigate the world, while also shielding her from it, Everything Everything feels wonderfully complicated. When the twist comes, all those complicated feelings are thrown out in favour of a simple 'gas lighting' narrative.

As far as the lead performances go, Stenberg and Robinson and suitably winsome. The only thing I had seen Stenberg in was Colombiana - this is a far better vehicle for their talents. Stenberg gives Maddy a a sense of intelligence and self-possession that ensure that when the movie demands that she leave her house, Maddy never comes off as an innocent waif. She knows what things are, and the joy comes from watching her get to experience them in a visceral way (such as riding in a car, or swimming in the ocean). Hopefully this movie's success (it made about $60 million in the US, off a $10 million budget) gives Stenberg more leading roles.

Robinson is also good, but because the movie is anchored to Maddy's perspective, we do not get as much character development as the lead. Although that is a nice a change from most movies, where the female lead feels like an afterthought. 

Overall, while it does fall down a bit in the third act, and it ultimately does not deviate from Hollywood's penchant for ignoring/marginalising disabled characters, Everything Everything is a nice addition to the recent trend of YA romance movies, and is definitely worth a look. 

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