Here’s one of those passable, cloying YA adaptations that’s totally artificial and utterly sentimental, torn between metaphoric exploration of romantic teen alienation and stupidly contrived conceits. Everything, Everything (so nice they named it twice) is about an 18-year-old girl (Amandla Stenberg) who has lived locked inside behind air filters and Plexiglas as long as she can remember. It’s for her health and safety, since her deadly immune deficiency was discovered by her protective physician mother (Anika Noni Rose). The girl has cultivated a rich and playful interior life through reading books, watching movies (always nice to see even a glance of Moonstruck), and checking in on support group chat rooms. But one day, a cute boy her age (Nick Robinson) moves in next door and, in a twist usually only found in stories like this, his bedroom window that looks right into hers. They make eyes at each other for a bit, then he writes his phone number on the glass. She texts. He texts back. It’s love at first emoticon, or maybe at first read receipt. The more she gets to know him, the more she wants to go outside, an urge we’re too swoon over despite the very real threat to her life if she encounters those germs floating in the world at large. Sure, the course of true love never did run smooth, but why risk everything (everything)?
Adapting Nicola Yoon’s book, the screenplay by J. Mills Goodloe (The Age of Adaline) contorts itself to justify the romantic urges, finding tragic backstory and late-breaking twists to convince the audience that it’s all for the better. So it has a premise that’s barely convincing on a literal level and yet – and yet! – it’s often sweet and emotionally appealing because of the unassuming openness of its lead and the soft-spoken, underplayed loveliness of its metaphor. What is first teen love but the blushing sense of getting away with something? The movie doesn’t exactly work, but, hey, I’m not made of stone, either. Stenberg brings shy expressiveness to her confined character, able to communicate her deep yearning for human contact through bashful glances while also signaling the fierce intelligence behind her hesitant smiles and flustered flirting. She’s totally believable as a girl who has more time alone with her thoughts and who has read more than most her age, and yet has experienced precious little of what we’d call the real world. She’s able to give the movie the earnest innocent desires and curiosity that almost provide enough emotional oomph to make the construct work.
Although director Stella Meghie shoots the movie with a pleasant commercial gloss – all bright sets, soft lighting, gauzy close-ups, slick pop-music montages, and coy, implied PG-13 heat – it also gives the sense it’s as closed off as its main character. The darker implications of its premise remain unexplored, tossed overboard for the sake of maintaining a sense of teenage fantasy and persecution. But the way it allows space for Stenberg’s performance to ping off Rose’s strong, stern, maternal love gives the movie the small metaphoric charge it needs to be effective. It becomes, in its strongest moments, a movie about the lengths a parent can go to maintain a child’s safety, security, and purity. Starting with good intentions, this can result in a young person for whom flirtation, let alone dating, seems like a far riskier and fraught prospect than it should. This is a simple movie about teenage love that deploys its dramatic conceit to literalize the sheltered girl’s boxed in feelings, then watches as they’re coaxed out through a sense of determination and outside influences. She and her crush are cute together. He’s sweet. She’s nice. Meghie gives their texting an imaginary mind palace of a meeting spot – fantasies of actual dialogue in the likes of a retro diner and in outer space taking the place of text bubbles as they grow closer – and when they finally appear in the same room, share the same space, well, I said I’m not made of stone. Even middling movies can occasionally get their hooks in you.