Illness can make life feel small. I remember how friends disappeared when I got really sick at age sixteen. No more school, parties, soccer, and bike trips. Girls? Forget it. A sense of immovable isolation came over me for many months, a heavy blanket blocking the joy of being young and alive.
All of this had been a faint memory for years. Then the very lovely young-adult drama Everything, Everything brought it back in a flash.
The essence of being sick is not easy to capture in writing, let alone in a compact hour and a half on the screen. But director Stella Meghie has brilliantly brought to life the bestselling book of the same name by Nicola Yoon. In vivid colors, with precision and care, she paints the interior life of an ill girl named Madeline.
She is played by Amandla Stenberg, a young actress from Los Angeles. You might know her as Rue in The Hunger Games. In Everything she brings a joyful lightness to Maddy, who has spent almost all of her life indoors. Suffering from a condition called SCID (Severe Combined Immunodeficiency) she would risk a life-threatening infection if she went outside or came in contact with anyone not sterile.
“Basically, I’m allergic to the world,” says Maddy — an apt metaphor for the alienation many teenagers feel, especially those who are ill.
Maddy’s sunny acceptance of her fate never seems out of place. Stenberg utters her sobering lines with a bright optimism, but the contradiction between that status quo and her generosity of spirit doesn’t come across as jarring. Soon enough, Maddy’s acceptance shifts into doubt, then a teenage resistance, and ultimately rebellion after she meets the new boy next door, Olly. Dressed in black, lanky and brooding, he brings out Maddy’s curiosity, setting in motion a chain of events in which her daydreams of swimming in the ocean turn into reality.
The progression feels more natural than Fault in Her Stars. That book (by John Green) and the 2014 film (by Josh Boone) were huge hits in the United States and abroad. But in the extremely capable hands of Meghie Everything struck me as smaller, better, more specific. It is less grandiose and ultimately more satisfying than Fault. You may cry less, but you will think more watching this new drama.
The story starts at a leisurely pace in the modern home built by Maddy’s over-caring mother/physician Pauline, played by the compelling actress Anika Noni Rose, whom we know from a strong bit part in The Good Wife. Then the story moves ever more briskly, into the outside world that is calling Maddy, which I can divulge without giving too much away.
The young actors beautifully capture the joy and fear of a first love. And just like the novel it is based on, the screenplay by J. Mills Goodloe manages to discuss the misery of illness without drifting into (self) pity. I can confirm that the joy of reading, excited laughter, and romantic fantasies continue to exist when a child is struck with a disabling illness. Even when she turns 18 not knowing what the sand on the beach feels like, Maddy manages a sunny smile as she says about her party with only her mom and a cake: “Not a bad way to spend your eighteenth birthday.”
That is before she discovers a terrible secret about her mother and herself; smart move by the producers to release this film after Mother’s Day. On the other hand, this is ultimately a film about a mother’s deep — at times terrifying — love for her only child.
The movie is well cast. I believe no committed fan of the book will have a problem with Stenberg. She really becomes Maddy — bubbly, whip smart, wise beyond her years, giving, and creative. No wonder Olly falls in love as soon as he spots her through the window and gets to know her through witty text messages. Stenberg’s is that sort of face you cannot not look at. The kindness, wisdom, curiosity, and flashes of anger have a movie-star quality.
Happily the film is about the big questions that plague a teenager — How to live while sick? Does he like me or not? — and not for one moment about race. It’s worth mentioning in this charged era. The cast is diverse. Maddy’s family is black, Olly’s is white. The book’s writer and the director are black women. Yet none of it matters in the film — which matters.
I was blown away by Get Out, the recent satirical “social thriller” about race in America. But the urgency with which the media and Hollywood keep on hammering away at the state of race relations can be exhausting. Everything ignores the colors we all see, while also showing them in beautiful detail. Instead, it tells the universal tale about one highly likable girl discovering her world as she falls in love with it.
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