The latest tearjerking adaptation of a young adult bestseller, Everything, Everything, has a unique pedigree buried beneath its standardized exterior. The source material for this tale of young love was written by Nicola Yoon, a woman of colour. It was directed by Canadian filmmaker Stella Meghie, also a woman of colour. And within this frequently white bread genre, it features a protagonist and leading actress who’s also a woman of colour. It was adapted for the big screen by J. Mills Goodloe (The Best of Me, The Age of Adaline), a white man, but hey, three out of four ain’t bad.
Does this excuse a lot of Everything, Everything’s otherwise run-of-the-mill teen romance’s more clichéd dalliances? Not really, but it definitely proves that this change in perspective provides room for a lot more thoughtfulness within a tale that could have been noxious in lesser hands aiming to deliver a cynical film with no effort behind it. It’s still a story that’s not too far removed from being “Me Before the Space Between the Fault in Our Paper Towns,” but as far as these kinds of narratives go, Everything, Everything delivers well worn story beats and sometimes obvious plot twists in a rather agreeable and entertaining package. I can see teens liking this, which I guess considering the age demo it aims for is the most important part, and I can see how it’s better than what they’re usually served up.
Amandla Stenberg stars as Madeline Whittier, a 17-year-old SoCal teenager who has lived with Severe Combined Immunodeficiency since birth. Basically, it means that Maddy can’t leave her hermetically sealed and rigorously sterilized home without the threat of severe illness or death. Her widowed physician mother (Anika Noni Rose) closely monitors Maddy’s condition, not allowing her daughter to have anything more than online pen pals, and social interactions on a personal basis are limited to the family’s long time nurse (Ana de la Reguera) and the nurse’s teenage daughter (Danube Hermosillo). Maddy spends her days reading, watching funny cat videos, and building elaborate models of places she’d love to visit in the outside world. Maddy’s routine is thrown off by the arrival of a literal new boy next door, Olly (Nick Robinson), a nice enough kid with a tyrannical, drunken, abusive father. Olly and Maddy have a meet cute over a running gag involving a bundt cake and start texting back and forth, gazing longingly from their respective windows. They devise ways of seeing each other in secret, but once Maddy’s mom gets wind of what’s happening and further locks her daughter down, the teenage girl decides to risk everything to brave the world outside her door.
There’s plenty to criticize about Everything, Everything’s storytelling dynamics and depiction of illness. Olly’s infatuation with Maddy escalates so quickly that there’s little flirtation. As soon as they lock eyes, he has fallen for her hard. This is countered by how the film never makes Olly look like a borderline stalkerish creep, and rather as a well intentioned, naive romantic with moments of clarity that make him question what he’s doing and how it affects Maddy’s life. The high spots of romance and swooning are copied from the teen romance playbook, but at least the dialogue shared between the characters never feels cornier than it needs to be. Sometimes, it’s endearingly awkward, and often quite thoughtful. The situation is inherently unreal, and numerous nagging questions abound about how Maddy could survive for this long without ever leaving the house for medical care, but these characters feel like they could be real people.
Meghie (Jean of the Joneses) also brings a welcome amount of style to the conventional storyline. Every shade of Maddy’s bright, but sterile world pops with vibrancy, and every frame of Igor Jadue-Lillo’s cinematography holds something stunning to look at. The decision to stage potentially deathly scenes of Olly and Maddy texting as conversational meet-ups in diners and libraries is a smart one, as is a fourth-wall breaking moment of romantic tension where the subtext of an awkward moment appears to the audience as subtitled text. Meghie keeps the viewer on their toes, and keeps things snappy. Everything, Everything is only the filmmaker’s second feature, but here’s hoping that the film’s better moments can serve as examples of what she can do with a major studio sized budget in the future.
Head and shoulders above everything else on display here, however, is Stenberg, who’s nothing shy of a magnetic onscreen presence. She exhibits a warmth and likeability that makes one constantly root for Maddy to find some sense of bliss in her life. She imbues the character with a great wit that few other young actresses who spring to mind could. She takes what could have been a rote “girl in a bubble” role, and instead makes Maddy someone capable of realistic empathy and compassion towards those around her. Stenberg brings energy to the film at every turn with her depiction of a teen movie heroine as a strong and capable person instead of a withering damsel waiting to be saved by the man of her dreams. Stenberg makes Maddy refreshingly proactive and confident, even when the character makes mistakes. It’s the definition of a star making performance, and she deserves more leading roles immediately.
Everything, Everything builds towards a twist that most savvy or older viewers will be able to piece together after less than twenty minutes, but much like every other clichéd story beat, Meghie, her cast and crew, build their film around how those genre conventions are utilized for maximum effect without seeming hoary or overly manipulative. Granted, Everything, Everything is a tearjerker and is inherently manipulative by nature, but there’s still a certain amount of restraint that leaves things just believable enough to hold together. I feared that Everything, Everything was in danger of going off the rails at several key points, but it never did. In short, it’s a bit of dumb popcorn movie that’s made with a good deal of intelligence and care.