The Sky is Everywhere
Courtesy of AppleTV

We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

It was with an uneasy mix of skepticism and curiosity that I sat down to watch The Sky is Everywhere. The director, Josephine Decker, made my favorite movie of 2019, the blissfully avant-garde Madeline’s Madeline. She also directed 2020’s Shirley, a film about the life of author Shirley Jackson that doubles as a subversion of the biopic, one of our era’s most tired genres. Decker has bonafides in the artistic community; she once took off her clothes at the Museum of Modern Art to mimic the vulnerability of the artist, and was escorted off the premises for violating the museum’s policy against nudity. Some people just aren’t committed to their art.

So what is Decker doing directing a film based on the well-received but undoubtedly conventional young adult novel The Sky is Everywhere? Going in, my hope was that she saw an opportunity to enliven the genre with a bold vision; my fear was that she needed a paycheck. The truth is somewhere in the middle. The Sky is Everywhere is bad, but it’s not from Decker’s lack of effort. The problems begin with the story, which could have been spat out by a bot that read a thousand hours of YA novels: Lennie (Grace Kaufman) is a teenager struggling with the recent, sudden death of her older sister. In her grief, she is befriended by Joe (Jacques Colimon) a manic-pixie dream boy from band class, and tempted by a surely self-destructive relationship with Toby (Pico Alexander), her sister’s stoic boyfriend. 

It’s the first screenplay by Jandy Nelson, who also wrote the novel, and her inexperience in the realm of visual art is glaring. Here is a film allergic to subtext. Lennie’s favorite book is Wuthering Heights, and instead of letting viewers deduce why she is drawn to such an intense story of love and loss—not that it would take much deduction—it constantly explains itself. First, Lennie tells us why she loves it. “Just like Cathy and Heathcliff, I’ve lost the one person who understood me.” Later, someone shouts: “Do you want to end up like Cathy and Heathcliff?” Then in a moment of catharsis, she destroys the book in an effort to break free from the patterns of her past. This insistence on highlighting, underlining, and italicizing every subtlety leaves the viewer unable to bring any of themselves to the story. If the film literally describes your life, you will love it. Everyone else need not apply. 

Perhaps to drown out the banal, overwrought dialogue, Decker works in a loud, whimsical register that consistently diverts the viewer from any emotional reality. There are expressionistic touches, like when Joe is first seen playing his trumpet and actual notes fly out of the room and down the hall, making every student faint with the power of his playing. Flowers appear out of nowhere, characters levitate above the ground, and an animated rain cloud appears over someone’s head to literalize their sadness. The color palette is filled with lush, verdant greens and sumptuous reds, a bizarre choice for a grief story. A generous read on these decisions is that Decker is working to evoke the emotionally-immediate, metaphor-resistant experience of being a teenager, but the stylism is so overpowering that it ceases to have any effect. It’s more likely she saw herself in some sort of death match with the screenplay, and the director opted for murder-suicide.

All that noise ends up burying characters whose lives are worth exploring. Kaufman finds nuance in a character written only in the broadest strokes. When she’s pretending to be fine, her voice shakes with grief; when overcome, a little light from behind her eyes still squeaks out. Cherry Jones and Jason Segel show up as her grieving grandmother, who raised Lennie after her mother died, and her pot-smoking uncle, and while neither makes much of an impression, I’m not sure anyone could have in this overcrowded frame. The near-psychedelic brightness, the numbing expressionism, and—I haven’t mentioned this part yet—the strange slapstick energy that occasionally infects The Sky is Everywhere washes out all its humanity. It’s a shame. I wanted to know these people better.

The Sky is Everywhere premieres in theaters and on AppleTV+ on Feb. 11.