Friday, September 11, 2020


Brett Haley films are nice. Not naive. Not simplistic. But kind and gentle in ways that demonstrate maturity and perspective. He’s a fine director of actors. He gets warm, humane performances that are generous, honest, and flushed with the charm of well-observed moments. Lately he’s had sitcom stars — Nick Offerman, Justina Machado, Keegan-Michael Key, Fred Armisen — and rising young thespians — Kiersey Clemons, Sasha Lane, Elle Fanning, Auli’i Cravalho — in the most tender, quiet, open-hearted, dewey-eyed star turns. They’re given the space to do the kind of deeply, casually felt character work in which these familiar faces don’t disappear into their roles, but inhabit them, drawing out a life by playing it uncomplicatedly and imbuing it with inner light. If these films—sweet YA adaptations, or just leaning into the tropes for structure’s sake—drift slightly into formula on the plot level, there’s something too honest about the performances to ring false. Like the acoustic indie pop all over the soundtracks, these films breathe with a feeling of comforting style, while textured enough to tease out rougher edges. These are the movies the post-Fault in their Stars teen dramas wanted to be, but so rarely were.

I first discovered his work with 2018’s Hearts Beat Loud, a story of a single father (Offerman) and his teenage daughter (Clemons) who bond over making music during her last summer before college. It sings with its simply dramatized scenes of characters’ connections, a give and take dynamic that’s pure and earnest, and builds with all the prickliness of these specific people. It builds to a moment of ecstatic musical release, and then a well-earned quiet, resigned, wistful denouement. The songs by Keegan DeWitt are wonderful, not too good that they’re unbelievable, but good enough to buy them as earning a small-scale local buzz. And the movie is low-key inhabited by a wise sense of parental perspective, willing to get caught up in a new project, but all-too aware of the looming empty nest. It’s a movie about conversations, softly played and sensitively staged, as characters try to bolster relationships. There are criss-crossing subplots made up of the characters' ensemble of friends and connections (this supplies a bounty of character actors in supporting roles), but the focus is so keenly on the leads and this one liminal moment in a perfectly aimless summer. It builds into a lovely little portrait of a space and moment in these people’s lives—a sense carried over into Haley’s two straight-to-Netflix films of 2020.

First up was All the Bright Places, a serious-minded teen relationship picture that finds a suicidal girl (Fanning) and a bipolar boy (Justice Smith) drawn into a tentative romance. They meet on the edge. And maybe, just maybe, they can pull each other back. Without steering into the gloopy sentiment—which could easily have turned the tricky subject matter dangerous—the movie posits the teens’ connection as both a saving grace, and a suspenseful pause. Fanning, especially, sells the carefully hidden raw-nerve of an image-conscious teen’s struggle to hide her anguish. The whole school knows her older sister died last year. It’s weird when it’s acknowledged outright, but weird to ignore it, too. Her parents (Luke Wilson and Kelli O’Hara) are only so much help. They’re grieving, too, after all. Maybe a sympathetic ear is all she needs. Yet the boy, too, needs more psychological help than a teen romance can provide. The movie is surface soft, but willing to touch the true discomfort of real adolescent trauma. And it’s willing to admit, in ways the John Green copycats weren’t always able, that True Teenage Love is not a syrupy panacea for whatever ailment is crafted into a narrative hook. It instead invests in conversations between teens, parents, teachers, and different combinations thereof, finding unexpected emotional honesty far more appealing than loud cliche.

Even better in that regard is All Together Now, in which there’s no teen romance to speak of. Our lead (Cravalho) simply has no time for that. She’s a hard-working high schooler with her heart set on a college application. She holds down multiple jobs and barely has time to say hello to her mother (Machado) before falling asleep. They’re barely making ends meet, so she has to contribute to the household income. Or rather, the fund for a household, since they are currently experiencing homelessness. Her mother is, luckily, a part-time school bus driver, so they can sneak into her empty one and catch a few hours of sleep each night before her early-morning shifts. This sort of quiet desperation, in which the girl is forced to slap on a happy face and stay busy-busy-busy because she wants to keep up appearances though she has nowhere to go, is charted as a quickly sketched process. We see the logic of her day, step by step. Here’s where she can casually borrow a shower, or part of a lunch. Here’s where she can stash her stuff for a few hours. Here’s where she can rest for a moment without gathering suspicion. It’s difficult enough being a high schooler, juggling friends, hobbies, jobs. Now add the emotional weight of her situation, the pins-and-needles precariousness of their plight. So when kind friends bolster her desire to audition for a performing arts college — what, you thought the star of Moana wouldn’t get a fine original song to perform here? — it’s nice, and we want her to succeed. But the movie isn’t about a pat happy ending. It finds moments of emotional catharsis, and a few big isn’t-it-pretty-to-think lucky breaks by the end, but leaves its final outcome tantalizingly open-ended. Its heart is in the painful connection between a struggling mother and daughter, whose tensions are based in poverty and constrained choices, whose words wound even and especially when love is at its toughest and most raw. Machado and Cavalho’s scenes together crackle with the immediacy of their present-tense crises while carrying unspoken years of baggage underneath every line. So even when a crusty old lady (Carol Burnett) lets her heart melt a smidgen or a drama teacher (Armisen) lends a kind hand or a friend offers a brief respite, there’s a sense that there’s no easy turnkey to solve this poor girl’s deepest dilemmas. It’s moving in what’s becoming the typical Haley way: drawing open emotional honesty out of stories lesser hands would’ve played for predictable surfaces and sentimentality.

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