Friday, May 19, 2017

Everything, Everything: Adorable, adorable

Everything, Everything (2017) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, and too harshly, for mild sensuality

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.19.17

Nicola Yoon’s fans will be over the moon.

They really couldn’t ask for more. Director Stella Meghie’s adaptation of Everything, Everything benefits from the savvy casting of two engaging stars — Amandla Stenberg and Nick Robinson — and a script (J. Mills Goodloe) that adheres faithfully to the 2015 young adult best-seller.

Once Olly (Nick Robinson) learns that Maddy (Amandla Stenberg) cannot ever leave her
house, he struggles for ways to help "imagine" her into the big, wide, outside world.
The film is swooningly romantic, start to finish, and guaranteed to send its target audience into dreamy euphoria.

The rest of us ... perhaps not.

Folks who enjoy both books and films have long known that some things work very well on the printed page, not so much on the big screen. Suspension of disbelief is easier, when we concoct the pictures in our minds; we gloss over inconvenient details likely to interfere with the unfolding narrative.

Having such a story translated into the real world of a motion picture brings such “problems” into the crisp focus of cinematographer Igor Jadue-Lillo’s lens, making them impossible to ignore. Contrivance becomes obvious, particularly since the story unfolds much faster, in a 96-minute film, than in a 336-page novel. Questions emerge; eyebrows lift; and — worst case — the spell is broken.

And, sadly, Meghie and Goodloe make that very likely to occur. They’re not sufficiently careful with niggly little details that Yoon’s readers will be happy to overlook, but which will prompt frowns from the uninitiated.

Suburban-dwelling Madeline Whittier (Stenberg), days shy of her 18th birthday, suffers from severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), popularly known as “bubble baby disease.” Since infancy, she has been confined to a hermetically sealed wing of the Los Angeles house that she shares with her mother, Pauline (Anika Noni Rose), a physician who cares for her around the clock.

Maddy cannot leave the house, or come in contact with anything that hasn’t been thoroughly sanitized. Her sole contact with the outer world is Carla (Ana de la Reguera), the nurse who visits each day while Pauline is at work, and Carla’s teenage daughter, Rosa (Danube R. Hermosillo). Everything they wear must be disinfected, each time they enter the house.

(Just in passing, Pauline must be an über-specialist who makes more money than God, because the state-of-the-art medical and physical enhancements to this home didn’t come cheap, and would be atrociously expensive to maintain. And that’s niggly detail No. 1.)

Pauline has made her daughter’s living quarters as comfortable and attractive as possible, including the creation of a gorgeous “play room” with a huge window that looks out upon their lush yard, giving Maddy an illusion of being outdoors. The girl has grown up whip-smart, thanks to online schoolwork, an insatiable appetite for books, and a ferociously inquisitive mind.

From the window of her second-floor bedroom, one day Maddy sees a new family moving into the house next door; she can’t help noticing the good-looking Olly (Robinson) and his slightly younger sister, Kayra (Taylor Hickson). Olly spots her as well; he smiles and waves.

Turns out the bedroom of Olly’s upstairs bedroom faces Maddy’s bedroom window. The ice is broken over the sad remains of a Bundt cake — a droll touch — and then phone numbers are exchanged, and the texting begins.

Yoon’s story takes place in the modern Internet age, which makes Maddy’s day-to-day existence more comfortable and stimulating, her education more plausible, and her budding “relationship” with Olly more feasible. He soon learns of her condition; their communication grows more intimate. This being Maddy’s first-ever crush, the enforced isolation becomes unbearable.

What to do?

Baby boomers will recall the cornball 1976 John Travolta TV-movie, The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, which trivialized the sad — and short — lives of SCID children David Vetter and Ted DeVita. This film wisely avoids that level of treacle, and for the first half it’s easy to identify with the frustration faced by Maddy and Olly.

Stenberg and Robinson make it work. She made a strong impression back in 2012, as the doomed Rue in the big-screen adaptation of The Hunger Games, and the young star’s acting chops have continued to mature. She manifests an ethereal presence that’s perfect for this role, since Maddy isn’t quite of our world. Stenberg is an endearing blend of shyness and hyper-awareness, her eyes honing in on every scrap of “newness” — a previously unglimpsed angle into her garden, a fresh face — that could brighten her day.

Robinson, recognized for his five-year supporting role on TV’s Melissa & Joey, has an easy, laid-back assurance. We get a sense that Olly is a mild tear-away — a kid who could slide into trouble — and that, thanks to Maddy’s presence, he makes an effort to be a better version of himself.

More crucially, the two of them are adorable together: cute as bugs, as Maddy and Olly struggle to make the most of their impossible situation. Some of Olly’s spontaneous gestures, and unexpectedly thoughtful acts, are aw-shucks sweet.

Rose’s Pauline, however, is harder to suss; she alternates between warm, heartfelt compassion and cold-hearted severity. In one breath, Pauline encourages Maddy to share everything that she likes about Olly, and it’s a joy to watch Stenberg blossom like a fresh flower, as Maddy struggles to put words to the intangibles of love.

And then Pauline cruelly destroys this tender moment by callously saying, “But he’s not yours.”

Say what?

I mean, geez, woman, where’d you buy that bottle of heartbreak juice? It’s a poorly staged and needlessly vicious scene, and Rose can’t begin to sell it.

Carla is a bit too good to be true, de la Reguera elevating the woman to sainthood as Best Friend, Caring Nurse and Willing Co-Conspirator. The character remains maddeningly superficial; we need to know more about her.

Hickson and Hermosillo never get a chance to turn Kayra and Rosa into actual people; they’re no more than afterthoughts with fleeting walk-ons. That’s one of the sacrifices made when a book turns into a movie, and that “need to condense” also short-changes the complicated problem that Olly and Kayra face in their home (a subplot that probably should have been omitted here, since it’s treated so superficially).

Some of Meghie’s movie-esque touches are quite clever, most notably the way Maddy imagines herself into the architectural models that she creates as school projects: great opportunities for production designer Charisse Cardenas to shine. I also love the single-line “spoiler reviews” that Maddy posts online, of each book she reads: marvelously arch and dead-on.

On the other hand, Meghie and Goodloe rely far too much on Maddy’s voice-over narration, which on several occasions resorts to said-bookism by “explaining” things that are blindingly obvious, as we watch them. And the wall-to-wall music — both Ludwig Göransson’s underscore, and the wealth of pop tunes — is relentless, needlessly manipulative and eventually insufferable.

Which brings us to the matter of the story’s third act. I’ll not mimic Maddy’s aforementioned “spoiler reviews,” but suffice to say that — for this viewer, at least — the contrivance became too much to accept, the story plunging into eye-rolling territory.

Which is a shame, because there’s much to admire here. Meghie’s film is heartfelt and tender, and Stenberg and Robinson are easy on the eyes. Best, I suspect, to embrace this as a big-screen romance novel, with all of that genre’s enticements and fantasy wish-fulfillment ... while trying not to worry about niggly details.

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