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'The Sky Is Everywhere'

by Keith Garlington Special to the Democrat -Gazette | February 11, 2022 at 1:31 a.m.

At first glance, "The Sky Is Everywhere" looks like your standard-issue teen romantic drama or YA novel-inspired weeper. Its trailer drips with tropes and character types. And even the story itself (based on a 2010 young adult novel written by screenwriter Jandy Nelson) seems custom-made for this kind of soapy genre treatment.

But if you take a deeper look, you'll find several reasons to be intrigued by this movie which just premiered on AppleTV+. First, there's the unexpected visual touches which interrupt the more routine bits and hint at something fresh and original. Second, it comes from director Josephine Decker whose last two features, "Madeline's Madeline" and "Shirley," were both unique and audacious projects. And third, it's co-produced by A24, a respected distributor with a well-established history of backing smart and inspired independent films.

"The Sky Is Everywhere" joins the parade of recent movies dealing with the heavy and deeply human subject of grief. Here it focuses on the loss of a sibling from a teenage girl's perspective. Grace Kaufman plays Lennie Walker, a bright and talented high school senior with a love for music and big plans for her future. Everything was looking up for Lennie. She was First Chair in her school's honor band, and her dream of being accepted into the Juilliard School in New York seemed within grasp.

But then tragedy struck. While rehearsing the role of Juliet for a forthcoming stage production, Lennie's outgoing older sister Bailey (Havana Rose Liu) collapsed and died instantly from a fatal arrhythmia. Lennie was shattered. She and her sister were intensely close. They shared the same room, the same books, and (as Lennie puts it) "the same thoughts at the same moments." They were inseparable.

The movie begins a short time after Bailey's death. Overwhelmed by grief, Lennie has had a hard time picking up the pieces, and she's struggling to hold her life together. She finds herself constantly calling Bailey's phone just to hear her voicemail. She leaves Bailey's clothes scattered around their room just to feel as though her sister is still there. There's no more music in her heart; no more dreams of the future. For Lennie, time just stopped when her sister died. "I lost the one person on earth who understood me."

Early on, Decker and Nelson lean on narration to fill in the details of Bailey's death and on Lennie's fruitless attempts at coping. Voiceover can be tricky, but here it works as a nice introduction. It also moves the story to the place Decker and Nelson are most interested in examining -- a critical juncture in the lead character's life where the choices she makes will affect her future forever, yet an intense and consuming pain keeps her anchored to the past.

From there, Decker puts a lot of effort into developing this tight-knit world Lennie exists in. Much of it comes through the eclectic blend of side characters, each affecting Lennie's life in different ways as she navigates her various stages of grief. In terms of family, there's Lennie's grandmother (Cherry Jones) and her Uncle Big (Jason Segel). "Gram" is well-meaning but a bit aggressive in her insistence that Lennie gets on with her life. Uncle Big is like a good-hearted reject from a hippie commune -- puffing weed, studying bugs and occasionally adding a fatherly presence.

On the less convincing side is Lennie's best friend Sarah (Ji-young Yoo) who doesn't get the time or attention she needs to develop. As a result, her relationship with Lennie never feels the slightest bit authentic. And I could've done without Rachel (Julia Schlaepfer), the obligatory high school "mean girl" and Lennie's arch rival in band class. She's more of a thinly sketched plot device than a real person.

But the two most important supporting players are Toby (Pico Alexander) and Joe (Jacques Colimon). Both are potential love interests who represent two very different sides of Lennie. Toby was the love of her sister's life. And while he and Lennie never got along, their shared grief and mutual heartache gives them a special bond. Joe is charismatic and full of energy. He looks at life the way Lennie once did -- the way she hopes to again one day.

These characters fill out Lennie's world, but Decker's camera does a better job making us feel a part of it. Take the way she shoots the rustic country home Lennie shares with Gram and Big -- surrounding it with a colorful array of rose bushes and towering California redwoods. Or the way we're pulled inside Lennie's head with these vibrant fantasy-like flourishes that range from corny to surprisingly poignant.

But the camera can only do so much, and the story begins to unravel the further it goes. It's no fault of Kaufman who puts the movie on her back and carries it the best she can. But the supporting cast can't match her, namely Alexander and Colimon who struggle when it comes to showing stronger emotion. And by the third act the movie is struggling too, knee-deep in cheese and unable to see its early potential through to the end.

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