Netflix's Teen Movie 'All the Bright Places' Handles Mental Health with Care
Trigger warning: This story contains a frank discussion of suicide.
The backlash to Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why when it premiered in 2017 was swift. Viewers, parents, and health professionals were quick to denounce its portrayal of suicide and express their worries over the impact the show could have on young viewers. The show paid little attention to the guidelines on how to discuss suicide outlined by the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, which discourage any graphic images or detailed descriptions of suicide, something 13 Reasons Why didn’t care to follow. Mental health professionals critiqued how the plot conflated suicide with a revenge fantasy; how the show failed to educate audiences about risk and prevention; and its lack of encouragement for teenagers suffering from mental illness to seek help. As someone who suffers from depression, I was angry when I first heard of its glamorization of an illness that over half a million people die from every year. It made me want to avoid the show at all costs, and I have.
Mental illness on screen is always going to be a sensitive subject to tackle, so, of course, when I pressed play on Netflix’s latest teen film, All the Bright Places, I was skeptical and even worried, especially when I learned that one of the protagonists commits suicide. I was waiting to be upset and angry like I felt during the 13 Reasons Why outcry. But instead, I saw a film that treats the topic of mental illness with care, where its depiction of suicide is known but never shown, making it a less triggering experience, personally speaking. Not only did I see this topic as handled refreshingly well, but I ended up seeing an honest and true reflection of myself.
Based on the international bestselling young adult fiction novel by Jennifer Niven, All the Bright Places tells the story of high school students, Violet (Elle Fanning) and Theodore, who likes to go by his last name, Finch (Justice Smith), both of whom are suffering from mental illness caused by trauma in their past. It's your typical teen romance film mixed with a depiction of mental illness that's real, not glamorized. Niven, having had suicide hit close to home, truly understands the topic and treats it with care, which translates onto the screen thanks to the carefully adapted screenplay by herself and Liz Hannah.
The novel wasn't without its criticisms, though, and I’m not about to dismiss them. Just like the novel, not everyone is going to like the film, and not everyone will see themselves in Violet and/or Finch because how depression manifests itself is different for everyone. It's an invisible illness with symptoms that aren't as clearly defined as, say, the flu, and it isn't an illness without a clear cause, either. There's a lack of understanding about a disease that people can't see, a disease that isn't physical; one that still goes un- or misdiagnosed because when you have a mental illness, sometimes you can’t properly explain how you’re feeling, and doctors aren’t well equipped to deal with a part of the body they can’t put a stethoscope to.
The film alludes that the cause of Violet and Finch's mental illness is past traumas: for Violet, the loss of her sister; for Finch, the abuse from his father. The sufferer oftentimes doesn’t know why they feel the way they do. Depression has many causes and the search for a cause is excruciating because, as Finch explains, you want to be cured so badly, and if you can find the root, there’s the hope of pulling it out.
Sitting in his guidance counselor’s office, he’s told that he's in danger of not graduating because he's already missed two weeks of school. He shrugs it off, refusing to give a real reason for his absences. His guidance counselor tells him that he should talk to someone, but Finch doesn’t seem interested. Finch at this moment reminded me of myself 14 years ago. When I was 12, the age I now know my depression first started, I refused to go to school. (My poor mother… Every morning was a fight.) I don’t think I ever went a full week that year. My parents just got a divorce and this school was a new one. I don’t like change, and those were two of the biggest changes a kid can experience happening all at once. I went to a psychologist, but like Finch, I refused to open up. (It could be because I was simply too young to understand my own feelings.) My depression has remained and the cause is never clear – if there even is one. As I write this, I’m in my worst depression in years. Unemployment is definitely a factor, but even after all this time, I still keep my feelings buried deep inside because the stigma surrounding mental illness is very much alive.
This stigma permeates All the Bright Places and puts an emphasis on why mental health education is vital, especially for teens because many suffer in silence not being able to understand what they’re experiencing and don’t have a safe space to discuss it. All your friends are asking what colleges you've applied to or if you're going to Becky's party on Saturday, and you can't tell them you haven't even thought about any of these things because the only thing you do when you get home is crawl into bed and hope to sleep off the noise. No one seems to care that Violet is still mourning her sister despite being distant and without any hint of a smile. "How much longer are you going to act like this? It's been months. When are you gonna just…?" You don’t need to be a genius to know what three words were sure to follow. Everyone with depression at one point in their life has been told to “get over it" or "cheer up." That right there is stigma.
The stigma surrounding mental illness leads to many, like Finch, being labeled as a freak, or in his case, described as "seriously fucked up." Violet explains that "people don’t like messy," as Finch adds, "Or different." And it’s true. I live in an environment where none of my friends or family suffers from mental illness (or at least, they haven't opened up to me about it yet). It's incredibly isolating because we feel the need to keep our problems to ourselves in order to protect us from judgment and to not burden other people with our baggage. When no one understands what you're going through, it's frightening, and I fear, like Finch, that everyone will leave me once they know how grave my illness is because they'll see me as too hard to handle. The film shows the importance and positive impact of having even only one person to talk to.
The film is a love story that grows between two broken people who, together, begin a process of healing. It's very one-sided though, which also reflects another heartbreaking reality. While Violet is all diminished of light, Finch seems full of it. He makes it his goal to help bring her light back; makes her "wander" with him to see the beauty in the smallest things and see the importance in even the smallest of moments. But being as happy as Finch seems, it doesn’t mean he's not suicidal -- the fact that you can never know what someone is going through is something we all need to learn, especially in the toxic Twittersphere of cancel culture. We often put other people first, like Finch, at the expense of ourselves. Many who suffer from depression put all their energy towards making other people happy that they don’t have enough energy left to try to seek it for themselves. So, they retreat.
In one scene, Violet and Finch quote Virginia Woolf’s The Waves flirtatiously to each other. Woolf is an author whose battle with her own mental illness is often the only thing attributed to her, but these two contrasting quotes from her novel speak perfectly to a mind suffering: "How much better is silence; the coffee cup, the table. How much better to sit by myself like the solitary sea-bird that opens its wings on the stake. Let me sit here [forever] with bare things, this coffee cup, this knife, this fork, things in themselves, myself being myself."; "Alone, I often fall down into nothingness. I must push my foot stealthily lest I should fall off the edge of the world into nothingness. I have to bang my head against some hard door to call myself back to the body." I also love my solitude, but that’s also where the darkness comes for us. Finch has a knack for disappearing, often for days at a time. But like Finch, we can be content in our happy place one minute, and then feel like a forgotten, invisible, insignificant speck the next. We begin to say and do things we don't mean. We become trapped in our own thoughts, sink into our beds and just hope it stops. For me, like Violet, it does; my suicidal thoughts disappearing into the recesses of my brain instead of flowing out into my veins. Some of us with depression can take medication and get to the point where we can say with confidence: "I'm okay." But for others, their story ends mid-chapter.
All the Bright Places shows a heartbreaking reality for many who suffer from mental illness, but it's also a plea: that with the right resources, the right education, we can end the plague of stigma and hopefully all find the bright places amongst the darkness. The film opens with Violet standing on the edge of a bridge contemplating the jump. Finch climbs up to stand beside her. He reaches out his hand. That's the first step.
If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or suicidal ideation, text "HELLO" to the Crisis Text Line (741741) or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255).
Need help finding something to watch? Sign up here for our weekly Streamail newsletter to get streaming recommendations delivered straight to your inbox.