It’s easy to get jaded about teen drama and first love. Our adult hearts harden, forcing out the vibrancy of those years, numbing the raw emotions. Then along comes a movie unafraid to remind you of the naiveté and passion of youth. It’s dramatic. It’s romantic. It’s earnest. It’s Everything Everything.
Based on Nicola Yoon’s popular YA novel, Everything Everything stars a radiant Amandla Stenberg as 18-year-old bubble girl Maddy Whittier. Diagnosed with a rare immunodeficiency disease, Maddy’s lived in a disinfected and beautiful prison of a home, where she takes classes online, scribbles pithy book reviews, and is cared for by a dedicated visiting nurse (Ana de la Reguera), and her doctor-mom (Anika Noni Rose). Maddy fantasizes about life outside her decontaminated safety bubble. But it’s not until a hot, brooding new boy moves in next door that she sees any real reason to escape.
Through text messages and secret phone calls, Olly (Nick Robinson) and Maddy grow close. One time her nurse even lets him sneak in for a visit, provided the pair promise not to touch. (Too risky!) But as their love blossoms, Maddy decides she’d rather risk living in a world that could kill her than staying safe and lonely indefinitely. Because this is a teen romantic fantasy, Maddy naturally whisks herself and Olly away to Hawaii, where they can frolic, swim, and get close without any adults to spoil their fun. Then things take a dark turn. But before we get into spoilers, let’s revel in romance.
Stenberg and Robinson are fantastic together. Shouldering the film with generous voiceover of Maddy’s innermost thoughts, Stenberg burns nervousness, joy, lust, and heartbreak through deep, dark brown eyes. Robinson is given little to do beyond be the perfect crush for a lonely and naïve girl. But he performs this part with gusto. Olly’s ever-tender with her, respecting her boundaries, and taking a genuine interest in her hobbies and home life. He’s exactly the first boyfriend you’d wish for your sister or your daughter, minus maybe the whole runaway thing. And because of the sickness angle, he’s extra thoughtful, never touching her until their first kiss. And this accidentally Victorian element makes that illicit lip-lock all the more thrilling. I had the good fortune to see this in a theatre stuffed with giddy teen girls. And when the leads finally kissed in the midst of a secret date—complete with fireworks blooming in the distance!—the theater went wild with exultant screams. Here before their very eyes was the dream. A boy who would get you and treat you nice. A boy who would be cute and caring, and have just enough of a dark side (Olly’s favorite color is black) to make him seem dangerous in a sexy way.
Director Stella Meghie smartly bolsters this bonding with some dreamy visuals. The couple’s courtship is mostly through phone calls and text messages. But rather than the traditional uncinematic staging of these things, gussied up by split screens or word bubbles, Meghie pitches the leads into imaginary settings to act them out. See, one of Maddy’s hobbies is building architectural models of imagined buildings, each completed with a miniature astronaut whose presence speaks to her feelings of isolation from the world around her. So when they text, Maddy imagines she and Olly in an old-school diner, with pin-up girls selling soda on the walls, and her astronaut comically trying to drink a milkshake without removing his helmet. Or when they fight over their future, she races up the stairs of her ideal library, with Olly chasing after as the astronaut humbly reshelves books. It sounds absurd. And it is, but it’s also whimsical and wonderful.
I absolutely loved this love story. And as someone who ended up marrying her high school sweetheart, I connected to Maddy’s sense of panic in the face of a first love that seemed too real and too important and too much all at once. I rejoiced for her as she found the guy who gets her humor, and accepts her pretty unwieldy baggage. And I was awed by Meghie’s incredible eye for details, from the clothes that chart Maddy’s evolution, moving from basic white tees to bold yellow swimsuit with a plunging neckline, to my absolute favorite moment.
In Hawaii, the couple arrives to their swanky hotel room to discover a single, large bed. We know they’ll return to it for a magical first time. The audience around me rumbled with anticipation as the perfect day of sun, surf, and sand had these love birds crash back into this bed. Maddy is ready for this moment, and shows so by turning her back so Olly can unzip her yellow sundress. He does, and Meghie has the insight to give us a close-up. The zipper tugged down is exhilarating, and across Maddy’s exposed back, we see her goosebumps. But we don’t just see them. We feel them. We share them. In a scene that’s PG-13, Meghie focuses on intimacy and Maddy’s expression. It’s a love scene more than a sex scene. And the girls this movie was made for roared and reveled with unabashed pleasure over it. And I was with them, blushing at my own giddiness.
But it’s not all romance. Here’s where we go into spoilers. BIG ones.
When we first ran Everything Everything’s trailer a few weeks back, one particularly clever commenter suggested there’d be a twist where Maddy wasn’t sick at all, but under the suffocating care of a smothering mother who couldn’t let go. Bingo. This is in many ways the same story as the terrifying murder doc Mommy Dead and Dearest. You’ve got the mom who is infantilizing her child and lying about the girl’s health (or lack thereof) to control her. You’ve got the daughter living out a modern and twisted version of Tangled, a pleasant princess trapped with her wicked mom until a prince can save her. But where Gypsy Rose had her internet beau murder mom to get her out, Maddy is only inspired by her love for Olly to run away. He’s the prince who pulls her from the tower, more like the steed who drives her to the airport. She’s a self-rescuing princess.
But here’s where Everything Everything goes from great to just good. Because the mom stuff never works. Scenes between Stenberg and Robinson are alive, thumping with a big, proud heart and heady with hormones. But when Rose shows up to lecture or fuss, the film flat-lines. The mother-daughter relationship seems strangely cold considering her mom is one of a handful of people who has real world, in-person interactions with Maddy. And Rose seems at a loss of how to play such a deeply, deeply flawed character, so she settles on scolding and prim civility. In a movie with so much life and color, Rose is grey and comatose. And because she’s such a drastic contrast to everything (everything) Maddy, the twist feels pretty predictable.
End of spoilers
Aside from this wonky element, Everything Everything was lovely. It’s an unapologetically feel-good movie at a time where we could really use one. I not only recommend you see it, but that you go to theaters when you think it’s most likely you’ll be surrounded by girls and young women hungry for romance. For me, the degree to which this works as an audience experience was this charming love story’s biggest surprise. The excitement around me was intoxicating. And in a world where “girly” stuff is so often mocked online and derided by critics, it felt almost revolutionary to be a part of that crowd, cheering for Maddy as she wins her first kiss, hushing each other so we didn’t miss a single word, and howling with delight as this headstrong heroine faces her fears, and forges her own happy ending. By the end of Everything Everything—thanks in part to a truly great audience, I was exhausted and elated, my face sore from grinning ear-to-ear.