“If I ever went outside, I’d die,” says Maddy Whittier (Amandla Stenberg) early in Everything, Everything. It’s a teen weepie setup if ever there was one: Maddy has a disease which keeps her from ever leaving home, so she stays cooped up in her family’s ultramodern, window-filled home. Her father and brother died in a car crash when she was a child and the spacious house is just occupied by Maddy, her overbearing doctor mother (Anika Noni Rose), and, occasionally her nurse (Ana de la Reguera).
It’s a lonely, improbable existence made instantly compelling by Stenberg’s abundant charisma. Maddy is bright and surprisingly positive, and not the type of melodramatic caricature we may expect. The plot thickens when a boy, Olly Bright (Nick Robinson) moves in next door, into a house that conveniently has a large window positioned directly toward Maddy’s room. That the two charming teens develop an attraction to each other is no surprise, but after spending much of its runtime ambling along on twee flirtation and Maddy’s increasing frustration, the film takes a strange, not entirely unanticipated turn, while keeping up its sunny veneer.
Ultimately, Everything, Everything is like a Taylor Swift video (specifically “You Belong With Me”) with a dark psychological trauma at its heart that it never fully probes. There’s some novelty to be had in this clash of aesthetic and psychology, and director Stella Meghie makes some cutely stylized choices in conveying Maddy’s feelings of isolation. Maddy enjoys building architectural models and often thinks of her predicament as similar to an astronaut’s. The models and the astronaut both show up in scenes where Maddy fantasizes about getting closer to Olly. There’s an uncanny quality when we see them chatting at a diner, and the fantasy suitably conveys a sense of being so close yet so far.
There’s even a scene where Maddy and Olly talk (spoiler alert: they do get to interact “IRL,” as the kids say, but complications ensue) and subtitles show their true thoughts. The device, cribbed directly from Annie Hall, brings cutesiness to teen awkwardness. Olly’s awkwardness can be frustrating. His character is given little personality beyond (literal) “boy next door” and the tensions in his family life are only given the briefest mention.
Everything, Everything demands a suspension of disbelief that many viewers may well not have the patience for. There’s a current of emotional manipulation throughout the film — the twee score, scenes of imagined teen romance — even if the mystery of Maddy’s illness all work to impart a light element of suspense. Will Maddy and Olly end up together? The “Will X and Y end up together?” formula has been a part of young adult film since time immemorial and while Everything, Everything throws some wrenches in the way of its young protagonist, the stakes never quite reach as high as we might expect. On paper, this is a film of life-or-death drama; on screen, it’s more like a teen girl’s Pinterest board.
The romance of Everything, Everything is of the wholesome variety (no hookups here), and while the characters frequently use technology the film has an old-fashioned feel. Maddy has obviously not had the life of a typical teenager, and doesn’t voice any impure desires. In a fantasy scene, she wears a long white dress that buttons all the way up while standing across from Olly. While Maddy does make some rebellious moves, she remains an image of innocence. Stenberg, who gave a memorable performance as a child in The Hunger Games, has recently become a precocious activist, interviewing Gloria Steinem for Teen Vogue and speaking out about race. In this role, she proves that her political side isn’t at odds with mainstream appeal, and her ability to play a winsome teen in a wholly apolitical film just confirms her strengths. Those looking for a funny or provocative teen film will likely be disappointed, but Everything, Everything possesses enough moments of charm to make the manipulation somewhat forgivable, even if it’s hard not to wish for a film that explored the darker issues it raises around family and fate in more detail.