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Netflix’s ‘All The Bright Places’ is a tender take on teen grief

The film stars Elle Fanning and Justice Smith.


Jenny Zheng


Posted on Mar 3, 2020   Updated on Jan 27, 2021, 6:56 pm CST

This review contains mentions of suicide.

All The Bright Places is an adaptation of the 2015 young adult novel of the same name and explores how two teenagers with serious struggles and issues meet, fall in love, and lead each other to a “brighter” place. If you follow the young adult genre, then you know the narrative of damaged teenage souls finding each other is well-trod, the best-known example being John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars.

All The Bright Places

RELEASE DATE: Feb. 28, 2020
DIRECTOR: Brett Haley
Adapted from the 2015 Jennifer Niven novel of the same name, ‘All The Bright Places’ is a tender and quiet story of two teenagers dealing with grief and mental issues who fall in love.

That being said, Violet (Elle Fanning) and Finch’s (Justice Smith) story is another worthy addition to the genre, and it attentively handles Violet’s grief over her sister’s death and Finch’s undiagnosed mental health issues. Together, Violet and Finch wander across Indiana for a school project, finding joy in getting lost and some seriously unimpressive landmarks like the highest point in Indiana (which is a hill) and a more impressive one, like a homemade roller coaster. The story overall is heartwarming, inspiring, and thoughtful in its depictions about the harder things about life, like loss, death, and sadness. 

A noticeable change from the book is the portrayal of Finch’s mental health issues. It’s not downplayed, but it is certainly less overt at the beginning of the movie. He isn’t writing down fun facts about people’s suicides in a journal like he does in the book, and it’s all the more subtle what exactly he’s going through. In fact, much of Finch’s thoughts and references to suicide in the book are removed in the movie. I get the effect the filmmakers were going for: an aim for something more complicated than a black and white, “Kid is depressed, kid gets more depressed, and kid commits suicide” narrative progression.

However, it actually creates a more uncompelling start to the story and Finch initially really seems like the dude version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl stock character. You have this seemingly fine, quirky guy, who is a social outcast but has good friends and is attempting to connect with a girl who’s going through serious grief. He’s there to lead her out of her sadness, and watchers are left wondering for a tad too long what his deal is. That being said: he does not remain opaque in the movie and Finch’s mental health issues are apparent by the midpoint of the movie. 

Michele K. Short/Netflix

It’s only a pity that the filmmakers sacrifice an in-depth interior look into Finch’s struggle and leave it in an undefined grey area. To an extent, I understand their decision. Suicide doesn’t always happen like it does in 13 Reasons Why, where the reasons for a character’s death are extremely detailed. Sometimes, it is more of an unexplainable, sudden culmination of things. The feeling you get from watching All The Bright Places is that the creators took the second option and didn’t want to sensationalize Finch’s death or make it a melodramatic soap opera, and instead aspired to depict his journey with sincerity and groundedness. 

But in Finch’s case, he was thinking a lot about suicide and death to an obsessive degree in the books. An intentional ambiguity about his thoughts and eventual fate in the movie feels like a disservice to the really uncomfortable stuff Finch felt and thought about in the original work. Sometimes, thoughts about suicide are messy, dark, and uncomfortable (Finch writing down facts about people’s suicides is pretty morbidly funny and uncomfortable), and the removal of such moments from the movie’s plot made the emotional heft present in the novel more muted in the movie. The movie adaptation of All The Bright Places is tender, beautiful, and thoughtful, but Finch’s story felt bereft of what made it so great in the original novel.

For more information about suicide prevention or to speak with someone confidentially, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (U.S.) or Samaritans (U.K.).

Looking for something more specific? Here are our Netflix guides for the best war movies, documentaries, anime, indie flicks, true crime, food shows, rom-coms, LGBT movies, alien movies, gangster movies, Westerns, film noir, and movies based on true stories streaming right now. There are also sad movies guaranteed to make you cry, weird movies to melt your brain, old movies when you need something classic, and standup specials when you really need to laugh. Or check out Flixable, a search engine for Netflix.

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*First Published: Mar 3, 2020, 12:28 pm CST