Content warning: this article mentions suicide, bipolar disorder and death
All the Bright Places joins the growing sub-genre of YA movies concerned with the difficult topics of mental illness, death, and mourning.
The story revolves around Violet (Elle Fanning) and Finch (Justice Smith), two American teenagers, and their relationship as they go from strangers to lovers, bonding over a school project. Violet suffers from “survivor’s guilt”, mourning her sister who died in a car accident. Finch is labelled as “the freak” at school due to his outbursts of rage — he is presumably struggling with undiagnosed bipolar disorder. The way that Violet and Finch meet is a critical part of the plot and forms the backbone of their relationship — and this is where the movie impedes the original story.
In the book, both characters meet atop a bell tower, each standing on the ledge ready to jump. The movie changes the plot so that Finch comes across Violet standing on a bridge railing and talks her down. This change in the plot moved it dangerously close to the many YA films we have seen before. The typical story goes: a pair of outsiders develop an unlikely romance, where one side is cynical and aloof, while the other is relentlessly pursuing them. Through their romance they eventually learn how to look at the bright side of life. (There’s also usually a fair dose of quirkiness and provincial America stuff involved). We’ve seen that in The Fault in Our Stars (2014), Paper Towns (2015), and recently in Let It Snow (2019).
The film unfortunately doesn’t do justice to the character of Finch that the book sets up, leaning much more towards Violet and her emotional struggle. Finch’s backstory is pushed to the side resulting in the audience becoming detached from his anxieties. It’s true that stories like his are not easy to show — he’s coping with a serious mental health condition, bullying, and a past of domestic abuse. But the script could have done more. For a large part of the movie, Finch feels like he was designed only to keep Violet smiling and happy — not as the central character that he is. However, the glimpses of his life construct a belief that mental health is messier than it might seem and that what we deem as antisocial behaviour might actually be symptoms of severe health conditions.
It also shows how much appropriate care matters. “It’s a small ask, man” — hears Finch from the school counsellor in one of the scenes. Now, when you’re trying to help somebody, judging them by everyone else’s standards isn’t perhaps the best way to go about it. This scene certainly makes you think about the quality of student support and counselling services at schools.
Despite its shortcomings in character development, All the Bright Places succeeds in getting a few important messages across: you never know if the person right next to you is struggling with something serious. Don’t make assumptions. Be open. Mental illness takes lives and deserves attention. And although the book does it better, the movie is worth watching.
Image: Toglenn via Wikipedia