Despite some bold and interesting visual touches, the Madeline's Madeline director delivers a predictable, trope-heavy adaptation
When it was announced that Josephine Decker – celebrated for her formal experimentation in expectation-busting thrillers – was to helm an adaptation of YA book The Sky Is Everywhere, many eyebrows were raised. Nonetheless, quiet hope was held that she would bring her signature quirks to what sounded, on paper, like a rote retelling of many a teen coming-of-ager. But despite some visual vigor, one gets the feeling of Decker’s impish spirit bubbling below the surface, only stealing above water for gasps of air in all-too-brief moments.
In picturesque Northern California, 17-year-old Lennie (Grace Kaufman) is grappling with the loss of her older sister Bailey (a luminous Havana Rose Liu). By her own admission, Bailey was the star of the pair: an artistic, vibrant beauty, in whose shadow Lennie was happy residing. Convinced that the wrong sister was taken and wracked with guilt, it’s left to “Uncle Big” (Jason Segel, imparting sage, stoner-y wisdom) and her grandmother (Cherry Jones) to pick up the pieces. And if that wasn’t enough, Lennie unwittingly finds herself in a love triangle with Joe (Jacques Colimon), the new boy at school who shares her love of music, and Toby (Pico Alexander), the boyfriend Bailey left behind.
Decker tries to impart a freshness into what ultimately feels like a standard teen story, taking the young characters’ lofty feelings seriously by allowing them to float in the sky and break into dance, suspended among musical notes and blooming flowers. Her direction, and Ava Berkofsky’s cinematography, are bold and textured. The sickly-sweet roses Lennie’s grandmother diligently grows spill out into the film’s colour palette and fairytale-esque sensibilities, growing over Lennie and Joe as they lie on the grass together. Simultaneously beautiful and suffocating, they’re a (slightly overstated) metaphor for the flashes of colour peeping through her grief, ready to wilt at any moment.
But visual trickery can’t buff up the dullness of the story at hand, with the predictable plot direction feeling particularly disappointing after the psychological complexity of Madeline's Madeline and Shirley. Both love interests lack charisma, while one-note performances all round only exacerbate the overall bagginess of the pace and direction. Scenes between Jones and Kaufman – ruminating on the perpetual shadow of grief and how to live with its aftershock – are among the film’s best, but come too little too late.
While nimble, agile camerawork imbues a fantastical spirit into Lennie’s world, irritating tropes abound. Why must every YA heroine be obsessed with Jane Austen or the Brontë sisters as a stand-in for a personality? And is ripping up a copy of Wuthering Heights really the most sophisticated metaphor out there? As the story continues, you can’t help but feel that nobody in real life speaks or behaves in this way. Fine, if the film wasn’t striving so earnestly for a realistic depiction of grief. And you can’t blame the trappings of its teen lit origins either – Ry Russo-Young’s Netflix adaptation of teen novel Before I Fall managed to translate into a moving examination of grief that was still catering for a young audience. While this film may find admirers among fans of the book, those who come as a result of the director might find this diet Decker lacks a lasting taste.
The Sky Is Everywhere is released on Apple TV+ on 11 February.
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