There’s an overachiever in every high school. They aren’t difficult to miss. They wear their above-and-beyond attitudes on their sleeves, conspicuously performing for everyone to see. Amber Appleton (Auli’i Cravalho) is different, though. She overachieves in secret and she overachieves to survive, doing far more than is asked of her because her life depends on it. Amber’s struggle is the emotional core of director Brett Haley’s latest project, his second Netflix Original of the year after February’s All the Bright Places. The film follows in the footsteps of the recent YA trend that puts young people through hell for the purposes of an ultimately uplifting message. It makes for a tough watch, particularly for a PG-rated film. Still, although the film is hardly an overachievement by any means, Haley more or less manages to craft a bittersweet (albeit facile) little indie.
The daily grind is nonstop for Amber. She wakes before sunup to help a single mom working overnights get her autistic son ready for school. Then, after school lets out, she’s off to teach English-as-a-second-language classes at a Korean church. Later, there’s work to be done at the doughnut shop in town. Finally, it’s time for homework and a few hours of sleep before starting the cycle all over again in the morning. Technically homeless, Amber lives on the bus her mom drives — they sneak on and off the lot, desperately hoping they won’t get caught before they can earn the money for an apartment. Her weekends aren’t any less hectic: From opening the doughnut shop to putting in a shift at the nursing home to care for her favorite curmudgeonly resident (Carol Burnett) to returning back to the shop to do her closing duties, Amber barely has any time to decide what comes next after high school.
Of all the infinite possibilities that await someone as diligent as Amber after graduation, the one that sticks out the most to her is attending the music program at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh (a long way from her life in Portland). Her theater teacher, Mr. Franks (Fred Armisen), has been helping her with her application. Meanwhile, her friends — Ty (Rhenzy Feliz) in particular — have been working to arrange a song for her to perform at her audition. However, after a series of tragedies force Amber to pick between having a future or surviving the present, she chooses to put everything on pause and focus solely on her odd jobs instead of furthering her education. Never one to go back on her word, she’s firmly set in her decision. That means it’s going to take an Amber-level amount of hard work and dedication from her peers to convince her that these hardships should motivate her to pursue her dreams, not give up on them entirely.
As its gloomy plot turn suggests, All Together Now is a lot darker than its jolly façade would lead one to believe. All the gaiety on the surface — thanks largely to an endearing performance from Cravalho, who was bound to succeed following her debut in the titular role in Moana (2016) — is actually a bit deceptive. Even in the midst of the most life-altering tragedy, Amber is depicted as enduring and indestructible. It’s a moving viewing experience, maybe even an inspiring one to some, but this kind of fortitude is questionable in a scenario as terrible as Amber’s. One is allowed to feel the pain of loss, after all. At a certain point, after so many of these borderline inhumane films, the question must be asked: What is the purpose of entertainment that sets these unrealistic expectations for its adolescent audience?
This is not to knock Cravalho, who is really impressive here in her first live-action feature. All Together Now is not the only movie to include a character like Amber, and given the popularity of YA fiction that relies heavily on these tropes to operate, it absolutely won’t be the last. But why? Is Amber’s impossible strength intended to scold the viewer for thinking their life is unfair by showing them someone who has it worse and makes it through their tribulations stronger than before? Or is it nothing more than just a tragic story trying to tug on heartstrings and leave viewers feeling touched by the end, striving for the catharsis of a decent cry in these incredibly stressful times? Regardless of what the true intentions are behind this character and the events to which she is subjected, it would be immensely refreshing to see a story that allows a person to go through some semblance of a grieving process or demonstrate emotional complexity.
Now, of course, it wouldn’t be totally fair to outright dismiss All Together Now for falling victim to well-worn genre trappings. In fact, Amber is thoroughly uncynical in a way that feels unique for this type of film. What’s more, it’s nice to see Haley portray existence as a blessing as opposed to a curse (especially these days). Some filmmakers would lean into the doom and gloom of Amber’s senior year as indicative of the unjust adult world she’s about to enter, but Haley’s argument seems to be that bad things happen to good people so that others can return the favor for a change. It might be a flawed stance, but at least it’s a distinctive one. Feeble benevolence is simply not enough to make up for the film’s superficiality and the way it often revels in misfortune, however. Amber’s unwavering positivity in the face of adversity is not realistic or healthy, but resorting to complete dejection isn’t appropriate, either — in truth, actual trauma requires a spectrum of emotions too broad for this kindhearted juvenile melodrama.
All Together Now is now available to stream from Netflix.