9:59 AM PDT 8/26/2020
Earnestly optimistic drama misses the mark.
Brett Haley’s Netflix adaptation of Matthew Quick’s YA novel stars ‘Moana’ voice actress Auli’i Cravalho as a homeless teen.
Auli’i Cravalho, the voice of Disney’s Moana and star of their live-TV version of The Little Mermaid, inches away from musicals in All Together Now, Brett Haley’s film of a YA novel by Matthew Quick: Though her character’s a teen singer who hopes to go pro, the pic gives more attention to her struggle to remain a local ray of sunshine despite being homeless. That’s a tough balancing act for Haley, whose 2018 Sundance entry Hearts Beat Loud shares much with this film — including, unfortunately, trouble making its gently depicted melodramas believable for adults.
We meet Cravalho’s Amber toward the end of a typical day: She teaches a nighttime ESL class for tips at a seniors’ center (the cuteness dial is set quite high here); then bikes over to a job washing dishes at a donut shop; then sneaks into a vast school-bus parking lot, where she unfolds her stashed bedding and awaits the midnight arrival of Becky (Justina Machado), her mother. Mom drives this bus in the daytime; after work, when she’s supposed to be looking for an apartment they can afford, she sometimes succumbs to the attentions of (and has a few forbidden drinks with) her bad-news ex boyfriend Oliver.
In the day, Amber stays equally busy, always with her backpack-sized dog Bobby in tow: She volunteers at an old-folks’ home, where she forces good cheer on crabby shut-in Joan (Carol Burnett). (From the start, this thinly imagined character’s complaints are an obvious feint, setting up a “surprise” in which she admits to caring for the kid.) She organizes talent shows to raise money for pet causes. And she hangs out with a clique of theater nerds, making a clubhouse out of the drama class run by Fred Armisen’s Mr. Franks. Nobody knows she sleeps in a bus — not even Ricky (Anthony Jacques), the autistic friend she visits every morning before school.
Attempting to wrangle a novel’s worth of subplots into an hour-and-a-half movie, screenwriters Haley, Quick and Marc Basch have trouble prioritizing. Is this a romance between Amber and Ty (Rhenzy Feliz), the friend who whisks her off for an idyllic weekend at his family’s luxe vacation house when she needs some time to practice? Not much happens after that weekend, but the episode does offer a nice showcase for Cravalho’s singing. Is it about her quest to get into Carnegie Mellon, her late father’s alma mater? Or does keeping her family together take precedence?
All these goals are back-seated by a series of Book of Job-worthy misfortunes, the last of which lands like a bad joke. Amber’s sweet optimism sours abruptly, something a viewer may understand in terms of narrative logic without actually buying the onscreen transformation. After the most visible of her losses, the film offers a grieving montage in which friends’ lack of sensitivity doesn’t jibe with what we’ve seen of them so far; soon after, her harsh refusal of help from others comes out of nowhere.
The picture wallows for a bit, having deprived itself of the teen cheer that was its main driver. Of course the sun will come out again, after those Amber has given so much to eventually find a way to force her into the role of gracious recipient. The fact that the way they do this is entirely appropriate to the character doesn’t keep the film’s feel-good climax from feeling very, very familiar.
Production companies: Temple Hill, Gotham Group, Thunderhead Pictures
Cast: Auli’i Cravalho, Justina Machado, Rhenzy Feliz, Judy Reyes, Carol Burnett, Fred Armisen, Anthony Jacques
Director: Brett Haley
Screenwriters: Marc Basch, Brett Haley, Matthew Quick
Producers: Marty Bowen, Ellen Goldsmith-Vein, Isaac Klausner, Lee Stollman
Executive producer: Jonathan Montepare
Director of photography: Rob Givens
Production designer: Bruce Curtis
Editor: Mollie Goldstein
Composer: Keegan DeWitt
Casting director: Tiffany Little Canfield
PG, 94 minutes