Get your tissues ready: All the Bright Places has arrived on Netflix and it is an emotional ride. Based on the book by Jennifer Niven, the movie follows two teens in small-town Indiana, Violet (Elle Fanning) and Finch (Justice Smith), as they learn to seek life’s beauty through the doldrums of wandering — even when life’s beauty feels hopelessly out of reach.
When I say it’s emotional, I mean it: This story deals with death and suicide.
The stakes are high from the outset of the film. In the opening scene, Violet is standing atop a bridge’s ledge, visibly shaken and meditatively watching the water below. Not a moment too soon, Finch walks up behind her, recognizing the girl from school. “What are you doing?” he asks, startling Violet back to reality. Finch jumps on the ledge next to her, lowering the intensity of the moment without ignoring the weightiness of it, then reaches for Violet’s hand with a charismatic kick back of his head, inviting them to step back to solid ground together.
That’s where this bond begins; reluctantly, for Violet, who is slowly returning to the real world after the sudden death of her sister, and eagerly, for Finch, who is drawn to a person in need of the same relentless kindness he needs for himself. Back at school, the two partner up on a project that requires them to “wander Indiana.” What unfolds from there is a complete first-love story — from intrusive self-discovery, through a cute roller coaster ride, all the way to profound heartache — which happens to be quite reflective of the intensity of your average high school experience.
“I was also experiencing my first love at that point in time when I read the book,” Fanning, who also serves as a producer on the project, tells MTV News. “And that first love... It was like, a very big, heartbreaking, tumultuous thing, and so my emotions were extremely heightened at the time. And just feeling all that, I just felt like, oh, this is exactly what it's like.”
Running concurrent to Violet and Finch’s love story are their individual paths to self-acceptance. While Violet is discovering how to continue living when her sister cannot (with a heavy assist from Finch’s ability to find wonder in the wander), Finch is dealing with his own internal monologue — which Smith illustrates as sounding something like, “I’m so different from everyone else, and I’m going through this alone, and everyone else is normal...” — as he struggles to find his sense of self-worth through counseling sessions, countless Post-Its scrawled with reminders of happiness, and his loving bond with Violet.
“I know what it is to try to find yourself in a place that is trying to define you,” Smith says, relating to his character’s journey.
“Honestly, we all go through it,” Fanning says. “But society wants to look at mental health as this weird, uncommon thing, and it's so completely not uncommon. It is so common.”
All the Bright Places aims to highlight the importance of caring for your mental health at a time when judgement seems to come from every angle — from your classmates, your teachers, your parents — and when the adults in the room think that you can’t possibly know who you are, what you want, or what you feel. It aims to legitimize teenage angst by speaking from the perspective of the misunderstood teen, and thus, giving value to that often hidden experience.
“I think it's important to open up about what you're going through,” Smith says. “I think it's important to know that you're not alone when you go through tragedy, that there are always people there to support you, who love you, who want to see you happy, who want the best for you. And I think the film really is just trying to drive home how important community is and bonding with other people is, and how that's the ticket to healing.”
And even though the film doesn't end with a happily ever after, there’s an optimism peeking out from behind the sadness. “You never know when you're going to find that person that's going to help you, or bring you out of yourself, or make you look at things in a different way,” Fanning says. “And that compassion and understanding can really... You can find that in anyone.”
Do yourself a favor and watch this one on a Friday or Saturday night; you might need a day to recover from the story’s emotional swings, or maybe you’ll be inspired to go out and wander on your own. All the Bright Places is streaming now on Netflix.
If you or someone you know is struggling with their emotional health, head to halfofus.com for ways to get help.