(director: Bret Haley; screenwriters: based on the novel by Jennifer Niven/Liz Hannah; cinematographer: Rob Givens; editor: Suzy Elmiger; music: Keegan DeWitt; cast: Elle Fanning (Violet Markey), Justice Smith (Theodore Finch), Luke Wilson (Jame), Nicole Forester (Demi), Alexandra Shipp (Kate), Kelli O’Hara (Sheryl), Lamar Johnson (Charlie), Virginia Gardner (Amanda), Felix Mallard (Roamer), Sofia Hasmik (Brenda), Keegan-Michael Key (Embry); Runtime: 107; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Paula Mazur, Mitchell Kaplan, Elle Fanning, Brittany Kahan Ward, Doug Mankoff, Andrew Spaulding; Netflix; 2020)

“Two struggling teens with mental health and suicidal issues find reasons to get together leading to a weepie third act.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The melodrama is based on Jennifer Niven’s 2015 best selling novel. Director Bret Haley (“I’ll See You in My Dreams”/”Hearts Beat Loud”) fills the Big Screen with earnest but irritating YA tropes, as two struggling teens with mental health and suicidal issues find reasons to get together leading to a weepie third act. Jennifer Niven and Liz Hannah adapt it from Niven’s novel.

The withdrawn Violet Markey (Elle Fanning) thinks about jumping off a bridge, as she’s still grieving the death of her best friend sister a year ago from a car accident at this very site. While jogging, her pushy Indiana high school classmate Theodore Finch (Justice Smith) spots her and walks up to the ledge to comfort her by telling her she’s no longer alone. We learn that Finch also has mental health issues, suffering from manic depression and bouts of just disappearing from home and school, which earns him the school nickname “The Freak.”

When their geography teacher conveniently assigns the class a travel project to locate little known but worthy sites in the state, the new friends become a duo and rejoice when coming across the highest point in the flat state. The two bond, supporting each other in their particular life challenges. However one starts seeing the light (finding the positive things about life) while the other drifts into the dark side (dwelling too much on the negatives).

When things go wrong for each and adults are needed for counseling, both can’t communicate with them. Finch can’t verbalize what’s bothering him to those who might help, like his guidance counselor (Keegan-Michael Key) and older sister (Alexandra Shipp). While Violet chooses to go it alone rather than seeking the help of her concerned parents (Luke Wilson & Nicole Forester). The sugary courtship, which never seemed heart-felt, has enough twee and pretentiousness to pull at your heartstrings if you’re the film’s teenager target audience but I think does little for the more mature viewer. In one obnoxious sequence, the pair show-off their minimal literary knowledge by trading quotes from the celebrated author Virginia Wolf about what it means to be depressed. Thankfully the pair recover from this brain fart and the character-driven story has them show off at last some youthful spunk by dancing in the fields for joy as teens very well might.

I can’t refrain from noting that this shallow melodrama is grounded in the usual YA cliches and derivative formulaic storytelling, and it left me with no deep feelings about either lead character getting a grip on handling their troubled lives. I also found its surprise tragic ending to be exploitative and used more for shock value than enlightenment.

Though the lead actors were personable, their acting was stilted (especially hers). I also thought the film failed us by not diligently examining the serious nature of mental illness as it proposed to do but somehow never got around to doing.

REVIEWED ON 3/12/2020  GRADE:  C+