There’s an undeniable purity to being a teenager. An old fogey can look back at the T-shirts and the albums and the notes passed in class with the appropriate distance and think, “God, was I ever stupid.” The distance grants a little wisdom, but even from that distance, there’s a reptilian part of the human brain that remembers the heartbreak, and the swooning, and the feeling that each disaster was basically, like, the end of the world. It remembers, so vividly, what it was like to be a gorgeous young idiot.
It’s that part of the brain, for better and for worse, that’s at work in Everything, Everything, the Stella Meghie-directed adaptation of Nicola Yoon’s bestselling young adult novel. There’s nothing about this film that isn’t earnest and open-hearted, from its frank performances to its whimsical visual storytelling to its endless montages. Is it a bit much? Yes, sometimes it is, and that’s perhaps the key to its authenticity. This might not be the most realistic depiction of young love ever committed to film (an understatement), but there’s something about its unabashed earnestness that just works, clichés and montages and all.
Yoon’s novel, faithfully adapted here, centers on Maddy (Amandla Stenberg), an 18-year-old girl who has spent nearly every moment of her life in the same pristine, germ-free house. Diagnosed with SCID (or the “bubble baby disease”), she’s basically allergic to the world and lives her life in books, online, and in her imagination (which frequently sends her inside the architectural models she builds, all populated by a single astronaut). Her company consists of her mother and doctor Pauline (Anika Noni Rose), and her in-home nurse Carla (Ana de la Reguera), until a new family moves in next door—a family that includes the all-black-wearing, perfect-hair-having, window-pantomime-creating Olly (Nick Robinson). They strike up a friendship, and Carla, determined that her young charge should have at least some small part of a normal life, sneaks him in for a visit. Fireworks, cuteness, and lots of drama ensue.
Everything, Everything dives into a couple of tiresome clichés (as should be apparent from the above paragraph), but tales of doomed love have been a part of storytelling for a long, long time. In spite of that, the film is less tiresome than it might otherwise be, thanks in no small part to the refreshingly low-key Stenberg. This isn’t a performance in the vein of Hailee Steinfeld’s turn of The Edge of Seventeen, where a young girl’s neuroses are on display without filters. Stenberg instead plays Maddy as a girl whose limited experiences have somehow made her immune to many of the pitfalls of teenage girlhood. Sure, there are moments of insecurity — bathing suit shopping is never a dreamy experience — but for the most part, this is a girl whose awkwardness is wholly derived from being on unfamiliar ground, rather than years spent excluded from the cool kids’ table. She’s just sick, scared, and falling in love, and there’s not much there to pollute that. It’s a performance like a primary color, and that is in no way a downside.
Stenberg isn’t the film’s only upside, however. Meghie brings a simple visual flair to the proceedings, abandoning the constraints imposed by Maddie’s reality from early on. Texts are texts, sometimes, but they’re also conversations in imagined diners, empty libraries, or in space. There’s no acceptance that the protagonists’ reality must become the film’s, and in doing so, Meghie and screenwriter J. Mills Goodloe broaden their palette in appealing ways. Maddy’s world is one of stark whites, down to the vanilla cake with vanilla frosting. The film’s world is something else entirely — and to be fair, it’s a world that even a tropical paradise has a tough time competing with, slightly dampening the effectiveness of the sequences in the film that extend beyond Maddy’s sterilized existence.
Nearly everything works. That’s true of Stenberg, Meghie, and Goodloe, as well as Robinson, who’s so charming it almost hurts, and Anika Noni Rose, a criminally underutilized performer whose appearances should always be met with huzzahs. However, it must be acknowledged that the film’s strengths tend to seriously underline its shortcomings. There’s nothing wrong with a good, healthy voiceover, but the film’s inconsistent reliance on Maddy’s inner monologue makes each sporadic re-emergence all the more jarring. The adaptation is a faithful one, compressing events while capturing the spirit of each major turn and character, and yet that fidelity makes the ending just a touch incoherent. What works on the page isn’t always so effective onscreen. With regard to the film’s big, somewhat problematic twist, it’s handled as well as one could hope, but the fallout is so rushed that some of Maddy’s choices (and Stenberg’s portrayal of those choices) beggar belief. And for all of the film’s visual flair, once it abandons Maddy’s sanctum, it gets a lot sunnier and a lot less interesting.
Still, Everything, Everything is a film that achieves its ends in appealing fashion. Will it change your life, a la The Shins in Garden State? Probably not, but there’s a preciousness on hand, one free of self-awareness. A 33-year-old critic is not the target audience, frankly, but a 33-year-old critic can get caught up just the same, nostalgia on blast and tear ducts fully operational. It’s not everything, but it’s something, and whatever it is, it works.