There are worse labels a filmmaker could pursue that “That old softie.”
That’s Brett Haley’s niche. The director of “The Hero” and “Hearts Beat Loud” serves up another slice of sentiment with “All Together Now,” a high school “It’s a Wonderful Life” without the supernatural nonsense.
It’s an uneven affair that begins with a flourish, works to develop homeless street cred, wanders into the maudlin wilderness for the middle acts and rallies for a predictable, over-the-top, break-out-your-Kleenex finale.
Disney animation singer Auli’i Cravalho (“Moana,” TV’s “Rise”) is winsome Amber Appleton, a plucky teen who teaches her English as a Second Language class with song.
She also works in a donut shop, always brings donuts when she volunteers at a local nursing home, runs the annual high school charity variety show, nurtures her pun-obsessed on-the-spectrum cousin (Anthony Jacques), dreams of getting into Carnegie Mellon University’s music conservatory and takes her chihuahua, Bobby Big Boy, with her everywhere she goes.
And where she goes at night is a school bus on the Portland School District’s maintenance lot. That’s where she lives with her widowed mom (Justina Machado). Amber is bubbly, relentlessly upbeat and keeping up appearances. But she’s poor, proud and homeless.
“I’m great. Never better.”
Following her, we see the juggling that goes on. The prepping for school she manages at her aunt’s (Judy Reyes of “Scrubs”) house, the showers she cadges off the elderly grump (Carol Burnett) she cozies up to at the nursing home.
“One of these days I will make you laugh.”
“Not if I make you cry, first!”
Amber is always thinking of others, vowing to make this year’s variety show a fund-raiser to replace the school marching band’s stolen tuba.
“All Together Now” is about when all those balls Amber juggles in the air tumble to the ground.
Mom’s an alcoholic with an abusive boyfriend. Auditioning at Carnegie Mellon (Disney or not, she seems a little thin-voiced for a conservatory) means she has to fly cross country, which costs money. Everything she owns is in her backpack. And her little dog isn’t the youngest chihuahua we’ve ever seen.
“Uneven” works for “All Together Now” because of the relentless, “How much more can she take?” parade of calamities that visit our heroine, whose poker face in a tear-jerker suggests limited range, not stiff-upper-lip stoicism. It’s not just the singing voice that comes off “thin” here.
“It’s under control!”
Fred Armisen has a role as a cool teacher of…something. He’s barely in this thing, but he’ll be in the talent show, for sure. On the drums? Not saying.
The “romance” with the rich boy Ty (Rhenzy Feliz) doesn’t spark, a promising circle of friends is cast by the wayside and for all the “reality” of homelessness, this plays like a Disney Channel gloss on the experience.
Still, Haley knows how to wring a tear or three out of a finale, and he manages that here, other shortcomings notwithstanding. You wish it was better, even as it isn’t. But at least “All Together Now” manages to make one feel, even if you feel manipulated as you do.
MPAA Rating: PG for thematic content, some language and brief suggestive comments
Cast: Auli’i Cravalho, Rhenzy Feliz, Judy Reyes, Justina Machado, Fred Armisen and Carol Burnett.
Credits: Directed by Brett Haley, script by Brett Haley, Marc Basch and Matthew Quick, based on the novel “Sorta Like a Rock Star” by Matthew Quick. A Netlix release.
Running time: 1:33