Netflix’s latest film for teens isn’t trying for anything deep or important, but it doesn’t have to.
The opening scene of Netflix’s latest original feature All Together Now hits you straight in the teeth like a cocktail of Pixy Stix, Surge, and rainbow sprinkles—it’s that sticky sweet. It’s not a strong start, even if audiences are hungry for fluffy comfort. Thankfully, it quickly pivots to be one of the streaming services more serviceable teen films.
Based on the young adult novel Sorta Like a Rock Star by Matthew Quick (Silver Linings Playbook), we follow the life of Amber Appleton (Auli’i Cravalho, Moana), your not-so-typical teen. She teaches ESL classes for seniors, works part-time at a donut shop, visits with the elderly at the local senior center, runs the annual school variety show fundraiser, and does it all with a smile wide enough to make your cheeks ache just looking at it. Unbeknownst to almost everyone, though, Amber is also homeless. She lives with her mother (Justina Machado, One Day at a Time) in the back of a school bus her mother operates during the day.
But just when Amber’s life really starts looking up with an invitation to audition at Carnegie Mellon, everything starts falling apart. Soon, Amber’s struggling just to get through the day and it’s going to take the love and support of her friends to see her through—assuming, of course, that she actually lets them in.
What prevents Amber’s absurdly sunny disposition from alienating the audience is how quickly and efficiently we understand her flaws. The second scene in the movie introduces us not just to her homelessness, but her mother’s alcoholism and irresponsibility. It’s soon obvious that as genuine as her attitude toward life is, it’s also a defense mechanism for her. If she can fill her days and present a positive attitude, she can keep her mind distracted from her home life and keep it secret from her friends.
The opening scene hits you straight in the teeth like a cocktail of Pixy Stix, Surge, and rainbow sprinkles.
A few key aspects of the film hold it back from true greatness, though. The first being Becky, Amber’s mother. Their relationship is fractured, but it’s not fully explored and the resolution we ultimately get feels like a copout. Thus, one of the central relationships in the film is also the most disappointing.
Another issue is that writer Marc Basch and director Brett Haley (Hearts Beat Loud) don’t do enough with their cast’s excellent diversity. Nearly every major role is filled by a person of color—a decision I applaud—and yet race in the film is nonexistent. There’s no exploration of the ways poverty and race can intersect. In fact, it’s never made explicitly clear what race Amber even is (though there are some textual suggestions that she’s Latina). It’s as if Amber’s life exists in a vacuum, free from the complications of structural racism. It isn’t that this needed to become the focus of the film, but it is a real wasted opportunity for it to speak to something greater than the sum of its parts.
Finally, while the film’s diversity of casting is worth praising, the actual actors can’t muster up much chemistry. Auli’i Cravalho makes a respectable turn in the lead, but all of her peers feel like rejects from Disney Channel original programming. Fred Armisen appears as her teacher and the inimitable Carol Burnett plays a comically bleak senior, but neither actually get very much to do so their talents are wasted.
That said, the overall result is surprisingly watchable. It deviates enough from some of the standard teen-movie tropes to be genuinely unpredictable in a few key ways. It’s also true feel-good fare that actually, well, made me feel pretty good, and that’s no small feat given the state of things.
So if you’re looking for film that’s deep and impactful and unflinchingly honest, look elsewhere. In fact, you’ll probably want to look elsewhere if all you want a film both expertly made or wholly unique. But if a competently made sunny teen melodrama with a happy ending if what you’re craving, you’ll certainly find it in All Together Now.
All Together Now is now available on Netflix