Amber Appleton (Moana’s Auliʻi Cravalho), the teen protagonist of the new Netflix film All Together Now, is battling something teenagers in mainstream movies and TV shows often don’t have to face. Unlike the teens in other recent Netflix flicks like To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and Let It Snow, whose lives are picture-perfect apart from the dramatic beats that threaten to keep them from locking lips with their crushes, Amber is more worried about poverty than romance. While she is attracted to her friend Ty (Rhenzy Feliz), her crush is a side plot, not her main motivation. She and her mother Becky (Justina Machado) are homeless — at night, they sneak into a school bus yard to sleep in one of the buses. Amber tries to scrape together enough money to potentially rent an apartment through her jobs at a retirement home, a donut shop, and teaching English classes in a church basement. Apart from a too-neat finale, director Brett Haley (Hearts Beat Loud) comes close to nailing a story that’s rarely told (let alone told well) in such feel-good fare.
Like her late father, who passed away a few years ago, Amber has a passion for music. But her audition to get into Carnegie Mellon, her father’s alma mater, requires an in-person performance, and buying plane tickets would mean dipping into her apartment savings. The cheeriness and optimism she shows her friends is tested by her living situation, and her mother’s abusive (but always off-screen) boyfriend.
Haley, working from a script he co-wrote with Marc Basch, Matthew Quick, and Ol Parker, based on Quick’s novel Sorta Like a Rockstar, doesn’t belabor Amber’s circumstances, and trusts the audience to put the pieces together. For instance, Amber asks Joan (Carol Burnett), a particularly cranky retirement home member, for access to her shower, but the movie doesn’t go out of its way to explain that Amber doesn’t otherwise have access to one. It helps paint a more realistic picture of Amber in a way that isn’t too dark for younger viewers, à la Eliza Hittman’s teen drama Never Rarely Sometimes Always. Midway through the movie, Amber briefly takes refuge at a rich friend’s vacation house. That home is idyllic in a way that wouldn’t be out of place in, say, To All the Boys, but the relative realism used to portray Amber’s circumstances earlier in the film make the vacation house feel like a different planet.
As the story continues, however, the balance between realism and feel-good-ism becomes shakier and shakier. The plot twists become laughable, both in terms of further misfortune landing on Amber’s head, and what it takes to get her out of trouble. The overall message that you should never be afraid to ask for or accept help from friends is true, but it feels like an excuse for Haley and his co-scriptwriters to keep the ending from being too much of a downer. That sanitization unfortunately undermines the film’s thoughtfully executed beginning, steering it in the direction of any other teen movie.
Luckily, Cravalho plays both sides of that equation well. She’s just as good in scenes where Amber is peppy and effusive as she is in scenes where that façade falls away. The excessiveness of her usual cheer is convincing as a cover for the trouble she’s so reluctant to share with her friends. And only Cravalho’s skill at selling Amber’s frustration with her friends’ obliviousness makes the too-good-to-be-true ending even a little bearable.
That said, the sheer amount of drama happening to and around Amber leaves little room for character development for anyone else. Her school friends, who are all theater kids to some extent, don’t get much to do, and the adults she knows (Burnett, essentially repeating Holland Taylor’s role in To All the Boys, and Judy Reyes as the mother of one of Amber’s friends) are mostly there to set a few convenient plot devices in motion.
But in spite of the predictable ending, All Together Now distinguishes itself through its heroine and the thoughtful way it addresses the effects of financial instability, as well as a lead performance that shows off what Cravalho can do in front of a camera, rather than just with her voice. It’s the rare teen movie that doesn’t seem like it’s mostly a fantasy, that gets beyond the big, artificial beats of series like Glee and Riverdale.
All Together Now is streaming on Netflix now.