Y so much YA, I say? With All Together Now, Netflix is clearly trying to corner the market on teen weepers and laughers, and obviously hoping it catches fire like The Kissing Booth and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before franchises. That being said, All Together Now — based on Sorta Like a Rockstar by author Matthew Quick, who also wrote the novel Silver Linings Playbook — has more in common with Amazon’s recent bummerfest Chemical Hearts. So it may not be a matter of if you need Kleenex on hand, but how much.
The Gist: Amber (Auli’i Cravalho, the voice of Moana) is teaching an English-as-a-second-language night class to six Korean women, who beg her to sing for them in her crystalline angelic soprano, and she reluctantly agrees. Then she grabs her meager tips from a jar and bikes across Portland, Oregon to the doughnut shop where she does dishes for a few more shekels. It’s late. Next, she boards a parked school bus nestled among many in a lot and circles classified ads for apartment rentals in the newspaper while waiting for her mother, Becky (Justina Machado, One Day at a Time). When she arrives, they hunker down for the night with Bobby Big Boy, Amber’s docile chihuahua pal. When her alarm goes off at 5 a.m., she pulls on her Carnegie Mellon hoodie and pedals over to the local old folks’ home, where she passes out doughnuts and tidies up and hangs out with Joan (Carol Burnett), a cynical ol’ crumbler who’s a master at harshing your mellow.
From there Amber goes to her good buddy Ricky’s (Anthony Jacques) house where she makes sandwiches to take to school, and even if she doesn’t show it, we feel exhausted for her. Ricky’s mom Donna (Judy Reyes) watches the dog as he and Amber hop a ride with their pals Ty (Rhenzy Feliz), Jordan (Taylor Richardson) and Chad (Gerald Isaac Waters). They’ll organize the annual variety show, which will raise funds to replace the school band’s stolen tuba, the kind of cause only Amber would champion. (Their adviser is played by Fred Armisen, who channels an overwhelmingly wholesome, fatherly Tom Hanksiness for the role.) Contrary to almost every portrayal of teenagers in movie history, Amber is thoroughly selfless. This, despite the thing you no doubt noticed in the previous summary of her jam-packed existence — she’s homeless.
There’s a reason for this. Her dad is dead, and she stares mournfully at photos of happier times. Her mom tends to drink away the pain, and pair up with an abusive offscreen creep named Oliver. Amber works and works and works, hoping to save enough money to find a place to live that isn’t Oliver’s house, while her mother rides the ragged edge of depression. I mean, Amber has barely any time to pursue her crush on Ty. She carries around sheet music of a song her musician dad once wrote — the same song she’ll sing during her audition at Carnegie Mellon. In Pittsburgh. For which she needs to scrimp and save $300 for a plane ticket. She has pluck and vigor despite her hardships, but it’s a precarious balance, and one that’s vulnerable to things like guerilla-sleeping on a school bus and the volatile Oliver situation. And at this point, you better have your tissue box unholstered with the safety off.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: I already mentioned Chemical Hearts, which has a slightly more morose air of death hovering over it. Otherwise, it tries to bridge the gap between the funny and serious tones of the usual modern YA touchstones: The Fault in Our Stars, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, etc. Oh, and All Together Now director Brett Haley also helmed Netflix teen weepie All the Bright Places.
Performance Worth Watching: Burnett’s comic timing hasn’t aged a bit. In only a handful of scenes, her irascible character is a robust comic foil for Cravalho’s winning earnestness. Sure, it’s a weary and overused character dynamic, but it’s entertaining nonetheless.
Memorable Dialogue: Amber: “One of these days, I WILL make you laugh.”
Joan: “Not if I make you cry first.”
Sex and Skin: None.
Our Take: These tears are in my eyes because All Together Now hit me right on the nose with its karmic you-get-what-you-give power-of-community idealist-Pollyanna message. The example Amber sets ain’t a terrible way to live, but if I sound curmudgeonly about this endeavor, it’s because the relative tonal complexity of the movie’s first half is compromised by the second, when our protagonist weathers the storms of tragedy by flipping the script of her personality. Despite Cravalho’s earnest-but-never-corny performance, I struggled to buy it. Thou shalt not allow characters to bend to the will of plots.
So the movie really falters down the stretch: Baked-ham melodrama takes the foreground; all plot chickens hatched in the first two acts inevitably come to roost in the third; everything comes together with the shiny-happy-people variety show Amber puts on every year, and I’m here to point out that being thankful it isn’t Yet Another School Dance is an exercise in extreme relativism. After Amber’s hardship inevitably worsens, the story transforms into a turgid drag until the very end, which is piled high with cutesy crapola, and the solution to Amber’s predicament ends up being the type of deus ex machina that rewards characters in faith-based movies who pray the most. It’s cringey as all hell, unless maybe you’re in its teen target demographic. The many predictable things that happen in the movie — well golly, you predicted them! Good job!
Our Call: SKIP IT. All Together Now spends significant time building up the credibility of its main character, but ultimately pushes her into a pit of cliches.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com or follow him on Twitter: @johnserba.