“It’s nice to have a friend again,” Violet Markey (Elle Fanning) says to Theodore Finch (Justice Smith) as they drive over to their next project. Violet, who’s recovering from a car accident that took her sister’s life, holds Finch’s hand across the driver’s seat. They smile at each other.
Brett Haley’s adaptation of Jennifer Niven’s book of the same name depicts sincerity and connection in an environment still struggling to understand trauma and mental health. While I have not read the book, it was evident there were some themes that were barely touched upon.
Finch, whose daily runs lead him to Violet standing on the edge of a bridge. Violet, recovering from a car accident months ago, is also struggling with her sister’s death and has since become withdrawn from her peers. There’s an initial hostility and curiosity between the two leads. But Finch, who struggles with a mood disorder, child trauma, and being called a freak, finds a sense of connection with Violet’s recovery. He attempts to reach out to her. Violet’s reluctancy eventually turns into an adventure as Finch helps her heal.
While I commend the film for showing the need for connection in coping with mental health issues, it slips and loses its pace; going from a gradual blossoming friendship that rushes into a romance that feels jolted. By choosing to focus on the romance, it foregoes depth that initially linked the characters in the first place. Violet gets the healing and recovery she needs, but it is not until the end that Finch’s own struggles are addressed. Because of this, it feels like the film is trying to romanticize the idea of caring for others while being neglectful of one’s health.
It does, however, show us Finch’s visible struggles to be “awake”. He also finds it hard to open up despite the amount of sincere people who deeply care for and love him. We are given insight from the perspective of sincere people, including Violet, but none from Finch himself apart from when he tries to get help. Triggering imagery is not always necessary in getting a point across, but the film would have benefitted from showing a side of Finch that does not involve him trying to distract himself. It’s apparent he has never properly healed from his own trauma.
I also like to think race comes into play, considering that we have very few narratives of people of color struggling with their mental health; that said, the narrative focuses on the healing of our white lead and sidelines our black lead. However, upon looking up the ethnicity of the character in the book, Finch was described as a “bright blue eyed and pale skinned” boy. The film opted to cast Smith, a biracial actor, as its lead. And while I have enjoyed Smith’s performance, I do wish that one of the changes in translating the story on screen was having a writer of color give us more insight on Finch’s narrative.
The story is well-intentioned, but it is shallow in its depiction of stories like Finch’s, which is a shame because Smith shines all throughout. To watch him eventually become neglected by the narrative to prop up Violet feels like a waste. All the Bright Places is alright, but too saccharine to really portray the mental struggles of teenagers.