Elle Fanning and Justice Smith take a walk — and a bike ride — through love and death in “All the Bright Places,” a moon-eyed teen romance that never knows when to drop the mike.
It’s a movie that takes at least some of its prompts from one of the best young romances of the ’70s, “Breaking Away.” Novelist Jennifer Niven, taking her queue from the motto on Indiana’s license plates — “Wander” — throws two star-crossed and mentally struggling teens into each other’s path, and lets the sap flow until everything and everyone is sappy.
It’s not a bad film. Elle Fanning doesn’t make bad movies. But it crosses several “Give me a break” lines, and then goes on and on past its dramatic climax, grabbing you by the shoulders and shaking you until you get the point. As if it has one.
Theodore Finch (Smith), who goes by “Finch,” is jogging the day they meet. Violet Markey is standing on the railing of a bridge, contemplating something rash.
He talks her down. And from that moment on, he takes an interest, becomes a sort of protector even as he’s online stalking her to figure out her story.
Violet lost her older sister. She is off-the-scale depressed. Finch, for all his problems — his meetings with the guidance counselor (Keegan-Michael Key) confirm he’s not coping, either — figures he’s saved her life and he’s responsible.
Violet’s would-be beau, Roamer (Felix Mallard) is running out of patience.
“How much longer are you gonna ACT like this?”
Her BFF Amanda (Virginia Gardner) may warn her off Finch, reminding her that his nickname is “The Freak” for a reason.
And he’s alarmingly persistent. Posting a song he’s written for her online should get him visited by the cops and maybe expelled — “I met you standing on a ledge…Why don’t you come talk to ME instead?”
But he wears her down. Her parents (Nicole Forester, Luke Wilson) are at a loss about what to do to bring her back to the land of the living. Finch figures a lot of attention, a few Virginia Woolf quotes and a “partnered” class project where they visit the Great Attractions of Indiana will do the trick.
There’s a lot of arch, forced banter that writers figure is how writerly kids talk these days — “My young brain is plump with knowledge!” But truth be told, the funniest bit in “All the Bright Places” is the idea that there are “bright places” in the Hoosier state, places these two will visit — on foot, by bike, etc., “the Wonders of Indiana.”
Pancake flat Indiana’s “high point” elevation marker is one of those. “I can see my house from here! Come on, the view is incredible.”
They stand together on a hope chest sized stone marker together. That’s the closest connection “Bright Places” makes with “Breaking Away,” a romance worth renting and swooning over 40+ years later. Indiana is, by rep, boring, a place to escape from.
Bike rides through the flat country, a swim in a quarry (They filmed “Bright Places” in Ohio, which tells you something.), all borrowed from the earlier film.
The romance here is more perfunctory, less heartfelt. And that goes for several big twists in the tepid plot. Events are mandated by script requirements, never organic.
But as Netflix has had great luck with teen rom-coms, and teen romances, spending the money on landing this novel and this cast was a smart gamble.
Who would have guessed “Bright Places” could be this dull?
MPAA Rating: TV-MA, suicide, sex, profanity
Cast: Elle Fanning, Justice Smith, Alexandra Shipp, Keegan-Michael Key, Luke Wilson, Nicole Forester and Virginia Gardner
Credits: Directed by Brett Haley, script by Liz Hannah and Jennifer Niven, based on Niven’s novel. A Netflix original.
Running time: 1:48