Josephine Decker directs Grace Kaufman in a winning performance that rises above YA lit cliches & a questionable love triangle
YA literature often gets a bad rap for being frivolous and superficial, caught up in meaningless fluff like who to go to the big prom with, or what kind of makeover you need in order to get the boy you like to pay attention to you. In reality, much of YA lit has a surprisingly dark streak, and is more obsessed with death and dying than Stephen King. Take a look at what novels are burning up the teen reader charts, and they’re more likely than not to feature a protagonist facing, if not their own death, then the death of a parent, a friend, or a significant other. They may still end up stuck having to choose between two people to go to the prom with, but not until after they’re able to work through their grief and learn to move on.
In Jandy Nelson’s The Sky is Everywhere, the protagonist, Lennie, has just lost her older sister, the impossibly perfect and nice Bailey. Josephine Decker, in a change of pace from such unsettling psychological thrillers as Butter on the Latch and 2020’s Shirley, directs an adaptation of the same name, with a charming performance by Grace Kaufman as Lennie that somewhat mitigates the awkward love triangle at the center of the plot.
Following Bailey’s sudden, unexpected death, Lennie lives alone with her quirky uncle (Jason Segel), and even quirkier grandmother (Cherry Jones). They seem to be handling the loss of Bailey far better than Lennie, who can’t even bring herself to return to school until months later. She spends her days writing and leaving notes for Bailey in the woods where they used to spend time together, when she’s not arguing with her grandmother about the need to get rid of Bailey’s things and go on with their lives.
The only person who seems to understand the pain Lennie is experiencing is Bailey’s boyfriend, Toby (Pico Alexander), who’s so devastated that he can do nothing but hang around Lennie’s house, working in the yard. Although they’re initially just drawn together in their shared pain, things become decidedly more complicated when Toby is apparently so grief-stricken that he can’t stop himself from kissing Lennie. Lennie is shocked, confused, wracked with guilt, and, it must be said, more than a little excited by it.
On a far lighter note, the very day Lennie returns to school, she meets and is immediately smitten with new student Joe (Jacques Colimon), a whiz on the trumpet. Joe takes a liking to her too, and their relationship slowly blossoms – or at least, it will, once Lennie learns to let her pain over Bailey go, and also figure out that her relationship with Toby is built on shaky ground at best, and will only lead to further heartache.
The magical realism that’s become Josephine Decker’s signature is still present in The Sky is Everywhere, but here, rather than sinister, it’s dreamy and whimsical. When Joe plays the trumpet, actual musical notes float out of it, causing Lennie and the other female students to swoon and fall to the floor. Later, when Lennie and Joe share headphones and listen to music together, pink and red roses bloom around them. These moments, plus the coincidence that ultimately brings Lennie and Joe together as a couple, run the risk of becoming forced and saccharine, but thanks to the genuine chemistry between them it remains deeply sweet, and even a little moving at times. Rarely do films get the giddiness of first love just right, and Decker, with no small amount of help from Kaufman and Colimon, working with Nelson’s script, gets it so right that it makes the viewer a little nostalgic.
It works so well that it’s disappointing when the plot plays into some really stale teen movie cliches, including a bitchy rival for Joe’s affections, and a wacky best friend character. As delightful a character as Lennie is (and again, all credit for this goes to Kaufman, a real charmer), she still qualifies as a “not like other girls,” preferring to hang around her house and read Wuthering Heights for the 23rd time when she could be out shopping or chasing boys instead. There’s even a hint of a makeover scene, when Joe casually undoes Lennie’s trademark messy bun, and declares he likes her hair better when it’s hanging down. The moments of fantasy sweetness Decker adds provide a much-needed balance to tiresome ticking off of boxes.
What also doesn’t really work in The Sky is Everywhere is the secondary relationship, if you can call it that, between Lennie and Toby. Given the ongoing debate on “grooming” and age gaps on social media, it’s hard to view Toby as anything but an opportunistic creep, particularly when he sulks and stews at the sight of Lennie and Joe together. Perhaps intentionally, Toby’s age is never specifically mentioned, but Alexander himself is 30, and mostly looks it. While it’s easy to understand why teenage Lennie would be intrigued by an adult man saying to her “I can’t stop thinking about you,” for the audience it’s a rather uncomfortable thing to hear, and a bit out of place in an otherwise warm and gentle romance.
Thankfully, the scenes involving Toby are relatively limited, in favor of Lennie and Joe, with whom she’s far better suited. If the course of true love never does run smooth, then Toby is merely a bump in the road, and the sooner the film is past it, the better it becomes. Even at its cheesiest (and cringiest) moments, there’s a core, uncynical tenderness to The Sky is Everywhere that makes it a worthwhile watch, long past the puppy love stage or not.
The Sky is Everywhere premieres in theaters and on Apple TV+ February 11th.