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Teen Romance Meets Anxiety Spirals in John Green's Thoughtful 'Turtles All the Way Down'

By Dustin Rowles | Film | May 14, 2024 |

By Dustin Rowles | Film | May 14, 2024 |


When I was younger, I didn’t dabble in cannabis often because it either made me violently ill or worse: I’d get trapped in thought spirals from which I could not escape. I hated it, and almost never indulged. Over the last three years, however, I’ve lived in those thought spirals more days than not — I’m trapped in one right now — and I don’t even have to smoke pot! In fact, I take meds that make the thought spirals slightly more manageable. Sometimes.

I hate my brain.

Similar thought spirals are at the center of Turtles All the Way Down, the Max movie based on the John Green novel of the same name. Here, it’s Aza Holmes (Isabela Merced, of live-action Dora the Explorer fame) experiencing the thought spirals, only hers are not about cancers growing inside of her children but about the millions of little bacteria in our environment that could lead to life-endangering infections. She has a blister that she picks at on her finger, washes and bandages frequently, and occasionally she will basically gargle hand sanitizer to kill the bacteria in her mouth.

She hates her brain, too.

The anxiety spirals are not conducive to dating (boys have bacteria), being a good friend (because she’s stuck inside of her own head), or going to college, because that would mean leaving the safe confines of her home and her mother/caretaker, Gina (Judy Reyes).

It’s based on a YA novel — and a John Green one, at that — so obviously romance will complicate things. The meet-cute is a little out there, though. Aza encounters Davis (Felix Mallard, Ginny and Georgia), the son of her billionaire neighbor after the billionaire father goes missing. A reward is put out for information leading to his whereabouts. Aza and her best friend, Daisy (Cree), go searching for clues on his property and bump into Davis, who also happens to be a classmate.

Sparks fly and woo is pitched, but Aza’s brain gets in the way of her ability to have a normal relationship with Davis, although what is refreshing — at least for anyone who suffers from this type of anxiety — is that Davis is not a cure. But he does help Aza to live with it, or at least pushes her to find ways with which to better cope. It’s as much as one can realistically expect.

I’m not the target audience for this, obviously, but like the novel upon which it is based, director Hannah Marks does a nice job of believably illustrating what this particular mental illness feels and looks like. I was less enamored with the fantastical elements in the story that my daughters — who are the target audience — really liked: The rich boyfriend who gives his girlfriend $100,000 he has lying around in a cereal box, skipping school to take a private jet to visit a college in Chicago, the best friend with the keen fashion sense, etc. We both ultimately liked it, but for different reasons, although I appreciated that my daughters could both capably empathize with and discuss Aza’s mental illness. But they also wanted Aza and Davis to end up together in the end. I won’t spoil how that plays out.

It’s a great cast, solid direction from actress-turned-director Hannah Marks, and most of the ingredients we can expect to see in John Green’s work, save for the devastating unexpected death of a major character midway through. Ahem. Thank you for sparing us, Mr. Green. It’s on Max, it’s free, and while I wouldn’t rush to recommend it to most adults, for the YA audience, it’s a refreshing change of pace from some of the more generic Netflix fare.