“Everything, Everything” is an updated, gender-reversed and more engaging version of “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble.” Hollywood loves stories of young pretty people with terminal illnesses. Think “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” “The Fault in Our Stars,” “Dying Young,” “Love Story,” and many more. So it’s no surprise that Nicola Yoon’s 2015 YA novel was adapted for the screen.
The lead actors are attractive and charismatic and give nuanced performances. Unfortunately, the dialogue they are given to speak is often trite and too many plot strands are unconvincing.
Amandla Stenberg (“The Hunger Games”) brings an appealing openness to the role of Maddy, a smart and imaginative 18-year-old girl with a rare autoimmune disease known as severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID). Because almost anything could kill her, Maddy is not allowed outdoors.
She’s essentially sealed into her home, which is lavishly and tastefully decorated by her mother (Anika Noni Rose), who is also a doctor. Her mother has designed their home to bring the outdoors as close to inside as possible. If you had to live stuck inside forever, this would be the house to do it in.
We get very little sense of the 17 years that came before the movie starts. It would seem the warm, sweet and astoundingly well-adjusted Maddy never had friends, which is rather hard to believe given how easily teens regularly form bonds virtually. It’s as if Maddy just sprung up in her late teens, allergic to all outdoors but relatively content with her life — until the appearance of the cute boy next door.
That boy is the slightly goofy, handsome and soulful Olly, affably played by Nick Robinson (“Kings of Summer”). On the day he moves in, he takes one look at Maddy and a mutual crush is born.
They gaze at each other across reflective surfaces; conveniently, her bedroom window looks directly into his room. They text. A lot. And because constant texting is inherently un-cinematic, director Stella Meghie (“Jean of the Joneses”) invents a theatrical device to bring their text conversations to vivid life: Maddy is taking an architecture class online and has constructed a rather elaborate miniature model of a diner. She imagines a more normal scenario for their banter — the two of them inside that diner, getting to know each other naturally. It is definitely more viewer-friendly, but if the movie is trying to illuminate what it feels like to live forever trapped indoors, then it serves as more of an arty distraction.
And speaking of distraction, the story undermines itself by violating its own rules. Or changing them as it goes along. Initially, the only people allowed into their home are her mother, a kindly nurse (Ana de la Reguera,”Narcos”) and the nurse’s teenage daughter (Danube Hermosillo). They — and anything else from the outside world — supposedly go through a de-contamination process before entering. Until they don’t. What “Everything, Everything” boils down to is a wobbly sense of realism that defies its own established constraints and features a twist that strains credulity.
The script, by J. Mills Goodloe (“The Age of Adaline”), is hampered by such banal lines as: “I want to experience what it’s like to be alive,” and “I’m willing to sacrifice everything just to live one perfect day.”
On the plus side, director Meghie honors the original story’s treatment of Maddy as a mixed-race character. Her mom is black, and from photos of her late father, we see he was white. Olly is also white. Maddy’s nurse and her daughter are Latina. It’s a laudably multicultural world, with an emphasis on humanity, rather than ethnic differences. No one mentions race. This is a story about connection and love. And as a teen romance it works far better than as a tale of a young woman confined by a disease.
The story has come under fire from advocacy groups for its implication that disabled people cannot lead full lives. It also treats a huge breach of trust and confidence as merely an outgrowth of parental affection, intensified by tragic loss. Maddy’s mother is a doctor and something she does would be worthy of a revoked medical license, but those matters of authenticity are brushed aside.
And then there are the issues of way-too-easy credit card fraud for ostensibly noble reasons and airplane travel for a teen with a compromised immune system and no driver’s license. It’s not just a matter of suspending disbelief: the viewer must turn off one’s sense of rational logic.
The film is at its best when it stays on more durable storytelling turf — first love. We get a palpable sense of the heady excitement, the awkwardness, the simple thrills that accompany that rush of affection and hormones.
Stenberg and Robinson play it just right, fully committed to their roles — equal parts dewy dreaminess and wry humor — mostly communicated through dual panes of glass. We believe their happy surprise when Maddy asks Olly after their first tender kiss, “Is it always like this?” and he replies simply: “It’s never like this.”
“Everything, Everything” gets several things wrong, but it’s admirable in the way it easily embraces diversity and rings true in its depiction of the first blush of love.