From suicide to bulimia to mental illness, director Brett Haley’s Netflix film All the Bright Places doesn’t shy away from tackling some hefty topics, but it’s the connection shared between the two teens at its center that may be its most memorable component. Elle Fanning and Justice Smith star as Violet and Finch, two Indiana high school seniors struggling with no shortage of issues, including the fact that her older sister has died in a recent car crash, and that he’s been labeled the school freak after a number of sporadic, violent outbursts.
The pair meet at the scene of the accident months later—he’s out jogging, and she’s standing on the ledge of a nearby bridge contemplating whether she should jump. Though they connect immediately, she’s the tougher nut to crack, having completely resigned herself to life as a closed-off loner. When paired together on a school project that requires students to visit Hoosier State oddities and report on them, she slowly begins to thaw, realizing they have more in common with each other than not. The pair’s breakthrough, a visit to the semi-famous Blue Flash backyard roller coaster, may just melt your heart. If not, a visit to a cardiologist may be in order to make sure you have one.
Though it could be easily categorized as yet another teen weepie, in the vein of Paper Towns or Before I Fall, All the Bright Places, which is based on the YA novel by Jennifer Niven, steers clear of sappy melodrama in favor of honest-to-goodness heart and soul. Yes, there’s the requisite third-act Kleenex moment, but the impeccably built (and acted) early parts of the film make us feel the climax that much more. It arrives as a horrible but natural progression of events and not some manipulative plot device just tacked on so the target teen audience has no choice but to send teary, emoji-stuffed Snapchats to each other.
Fanning, fresh off her fine work in the Maleficent series, gets a chance to really shine here, and she turns in one of her finer performances to date—multi-layered and exquisitely subtle. And Smith takes every advantage of his breakout moment. A performance that could have easily devolved into an overwrought emo-fest instead serves as notice that this kid has talent to spare.
The script, co-written by Niven alongside Long Shot’s Liz Hannah, occasionally feels too esoteric and pedantic for its own good (quotes from Virginia Woolf feature prominently), but the cast keeps things grounded, and Haley’s direction ties everything together beautifully—helping make All the Bright Places a true bright spot among Netlfix’s current offerings.