There’s an old saying, “Time heals all wounds,” which implies that one becomes whole again after a period of restoration. This isn’t the case, though, really. As was reminded to me recently, wounds heal, you’re just not as you once were. This is especially true when you lose a loved one. It doesn’t matter if the loss was expected and planned for or spontaneous, there’s an absence felt in their wake. Time softens the loss, but you’re never really restored to as before. This is a small part of the themes explored in young adult novel adaptation The Sky is Everywhere, directed by Josephine Decker (Madeline’s Madeline; Shirley) and adapted by author Jandy Nelson, a tale focused on a family recently touched by death and the way in which each member handles it. The Sky is Everywhere captures, as only Decker can, all the shades of life and loss (messy and angry, soft and kind), never losing its youthful perspective and perception for a moment.
There were once two sisters, older sister Bailey (Havana Rose Liu) and younger sister Lennie (Grace Kaufman), who went everywhere and did everything together. Bailey always led, clearing a path for her more cautious, introverted sister. Both were gifted in the arts (Bailey the actor and Lennie the musician), each living for the moment when they could take the next step into their dreams. However, while auditioning for a part in Romeo & Juliet, Bailey collapsed suddenly from heart arrhythmia and was gone, leaving behind Lennie, their grandmother (Cherry Jones), their uncle, Big (Jason Segel), and her boyfriend Tobey (Pico Alexander). As each processes their grief individually, Lennie and Toby, typically at odds, find themselves comforted by the other. That’s complicated enough in the shadow of Bailey, but then Lennie meets new kid Joe (Jacques Colimon) and a choice takes shape: stay within the comfort of the past or carve a new path forward.
Decker’s work first hit my radar with her 2018 drama Madeline’s Madeline. It, like her follow-up film Shirley (2020), is enhanced by Decker’s particularly dynamic cinematic perspective, balancing the surreal with the concrete until one isn’t entirely sure of their heading. This works beautifully to put your audience on the edge of their seat in a tale of unraveling reality or someone who’s not so sure how to engage with the world, but how does that style gel with tale like Nelson’s? If one removes the jagged edges of the former works, it gels exquisitely. This means capturing the internal anguish of loss and visualizing it for us as the tearing down of the world around Lennie. It could mean that, in a moment of pure joy, Lennie finds herself lifted upwards, spinning in the sky as if suspended by nothing more than her momentary positivity. It may also mean that, upon opening the door to the band room, she finds herself (and others) blown over by the literal music notes that come shooting from Joe’s musical instrument, the girls falling in a faint at his impressiveness. Few directors could pull off these moments, and many others, without some sense of falsehood or YA cheese seeping through. Instead, each of these hyperreal moments not only feel tethered to reality, but they make the difficult job of conveying the complicated internal processes of a person in crisis easier for audiences to understand.
Regarding the adaptation, I have not read the 2010 novel and have no knowledge of Nelson’s work. Based on some brief research, there appear to be several changes from one medium to another from details of the sisters’ birth mother, the presentation of the love quadrangle, the conflicts that arise from that, and more. This may bother readers who are looking for a more 1:1 translation, but it will likely not bother anyone who hasn’t read the book with the exception of a few things. The screenplay from Nelson manages to streamline things so that one feels a sense of satisfaction, all the answers they needed provided, from start to finish. In concert with Decker’s specific voice, I wonder if the changes were made specifically so that aspects of the novel were more cinematic versus made out of necessity to trim for a roughly 104-minute runtime. In the novel, the birth mother abandoned the sisters, whereas in the movie, she passed from the same heart issue as Bailey. This creates additional trauma in the house, like a specter, which had previously never been truly addressed. Additionally, the film allows for the destruction of one of the more egregious sins of rom-coms or coming of age stories: the grand gesture. The film makes comedic fodder of how grand gestures don’t solve problems, opting to follow what may be a new path. In one of the less explained aspects of the narrative, Lennie takes to writing notes (to herself, to Bailey, to us?) and leaving them places. This isn’t just a cute quirk or something she does to convey her grief, it takes on real significance to the execution of the conclusion. This allows the cinematic version of the narrative to keep its youthful romanticism without the need of tropes. Truthfully, if my research is correct, the ending of the film is more emotionally satisfying as Lennie has to climb a great deal to get herself out of the interpersonal hole she’s dug and Nelson’s adapted script sticks the landing. Of all the things the script does, may favorite portion may be that we never get anything from Bailey herself that isn’t shaped by someone else’s memory. In this way, Bailey remains an enigma to us, an avatar or an icon, something to be defined solely by how others see her; making the journey of Lennie to let go far more personal and the audience’s need to explore Lennie’s perspective all the more powerful.
The Sky is Everywhere is a balancing act of dark and light. The end of a life and the start of a new one. If not for the precision cinematography, production design, and art direction, Everywhere could easily be a drab slog, filled with little more than melancholy. Instead, cinematographer Ava Berkofsky (Insecure) brings light and color into even the darkest sequences (thematically or lit-wise). This, of course, goes hand-in-hand with the production design from Grace Yun (Hereditary) and art direction from Cat Navarro (Hereditary), each of which communicates the free-spirited nature of Lennie’s family, a perspective powered by defiant optimism. A favorite moment is early in the film when Lennie texts her friend Sarah (played by the delightful Ji-young Yoo), the dark of evening having fallen on her woods-surrounded home, the majority of the light coming from inside the home, beaming from the windows. In this shot, Lennie is backlit, yet is as visible to us as are the various colors of the walls and furniture inside the home. The sequence helps to convey that while things are dark outside, light is capable of shining from within. It’s one of many sequences that juxtapose the beauty of nature against the notion of fragility of humanity, that infuses organic color into this YA drama, making it leap off the screen and into our hearts.
In a recent interview with IndieWire, Decker explains that making The Sky is Everywhere provided her not only the opportunity to make a “happy” film (something which seems strange to describe Everywhere, but fits in comparison to her prior films) but to also allow her to branch out technically. What audiences are given feels like a natural progression of the director as she’s been given the means of going further with her creative spirit without breaking the logic of the film. It’s not just characters twirling in the sky or the forest seemingly crumbling away like broken art pieces, its text messages written like chalk on the air or performance art making nature come to life. Fans of Decker’s can see her style and her voice all throughout Everywhere, creating something poignant and unique in the YA space. A film which those who’ve been touched by this kind of loss will understand either through Decker’s visuals, the performances of the able cast, or Nelson’s stirring words. Time heals all wounds, but it does so in singular moments, not in one sweeping period. Small moments gathered together, piled on top of each other, until distance combines with time. Through this, healing can occur. The signs of recovery are everywhere, all around us, ready to take us from one moment to another. We need only be open to them.
In select theaters and on Apple TV+ February 11th, 2022.
For more information, head to the official The Sky is Everywhere Apple TV+ website.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.