When it comes to romantic matchups, Hollywood has never been particularly shy about pairing a conventional human being with a fluky, not-of-this-earth partner: a mermaid, a superhero, King Kong, or Zach Galifianakis. But “Every Day,” an adaptation of David Levithan’s 2012 young-adult novel, marks a surprisingly original entry in the genre of fanciful mismatched love story.
The film’s heroine, Rhiannon (Angourie Rice), is an effervescent, tuned-in, and utterly normal teenager growing up in a woodsy suburb of Baltimore. The character she falls head over heels for is…a spirit. One who takes over the mind and body of a different local teenager every day, until the clock strikes midnight, at which point the spirit moves on to somebody else. The spirit, whose name is A., can occupy a boy or a girl, of any shape, size, or ethnicity, but he/she is always kind, thoughtful, sharp, funny, observant, and compassionate. Kind of like Jesus meets Zendaya.
You could say — and you’d be right — that “Every Day” is a highly derivative movie, since it contains echoes of a great many other fantasy-contraption love stories. The way A. wakes up each morning in the body a different person, greeting the day with a who-am-I-now? variation on the one before it (and setting the phone alarm for 11:00 and 11:50 p.m., like something out of a digital-age Cinderella), is an obvious variation on the premise of “Groundhog Day.” The passing of a persona, like a baton, from one actor to the next owes a debt to Todd Solondz’ extraordinarily underrated satirical fantasia “Palindromes” (2005). And the way that “Every Day” plays around with issues of love and personality — Rhiannon isn’t just falling for an image, she’s falling for a soul — is like the YA version of a conceit out of the Charlie Kaufman pretzel-of-identity playbook.
“Every Day” feels like a YA movie — wholesome and benign, told in televisual medium shots, with a message tailored to be an antidote to toxic teenage cynicism. A. takes steps to save a depressed teen from suicide and also helps to heal, a little too easily, the relationship between Rhiannon’s mother (Maria Bello) and her saintly dysfunctional portrait-painting father (Michael Cram). More than that, A. fulfills the YA fantasy of endless self-attention: He/she becomes dozens of people, each of them blissfully focused on our heroine.
Yet taken on its own terms, “Every Day” molds its conceit into a friendly, exploratory shape. The director, Michael Sucsy, and screenwriter, Jesse Andrews (author of both the novel and screenplay for “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”), work with a creamy formal finesse, and one can be grateful for more than just the fact that you’re watching a YA drama that doesn’t hinge on car accidents, comas, or terminal cancer. There’s a playfulness to “Every Day,” to how the film says to its audience — through the very structure of its Afterschool Special sci-fi design — that if you want to find love, you’ve got to look beyond the surface.
A. first shows up in the body of Rhiannon’s boyfriend, Justin (Justice Smith), a mixed-race dude with a diamond earring and a killer smile. But with A.’s personality suddenly embedded in him, he’s a lot nicer than usual. He takes Rhiannon on a spontaneous excursion into Baltimore, surprising her at every turn by being open and generous, singing along with The The’s “This Is the Day” and listening, with supreme sensitivity, to the saga of how Rhiannon’s father fell apart. It’s a high-school dream date, but the next day Justin returns to being the sullen, chain-smoking cool kid he always was.
After that, A. morphs into a student (Jeni Ross) who pledges to shadow Rhiannon all day, then a dancing geek (Lucas Jade Zumann) she bonds with at a party, a home-schooled brainiac (Rory McDonald), a bookstore hipster (Katie Douglas), and then a sensitive, shaven-headed, roly-poly kid (the terrific Jacob Batalon) who sits at a diner and explains to her what’s going on — which is to say, he lets Rhiannon know that A., after a lifetime of body-hopping (like the alien-slug spirit of “The Hidden”), doesn’t want to keep living a completely different life each day. He/she has fallen for Rhiannon, and wants to be with her. At one point, A. even becomes Rhiannon, a situation that Kaufman, no doubt, would have played for the twistiest of auto-erotic possibilities. In “Every Day,” however, it just passes as one more day. It’s all part of the film’s let’s-try-it-on spirit, which the Australian actress Angourie Rice, with her self-aware bubbliness, incarnates.
So can a high-school girl have a true-blue relationship with a benevolent shape-shifter? The answer is obviously: Not forever. But just when it looks as if “Every Day” might start to run out of gas, it finds a nifty way to resolve itself. Owen Teague, the actor who plays A.’s culminating host, Alexander, gives a very canny performance, and the best thing about it is that where A. turns the other characters he/she inhabits into elevated versions of themselves, in the case of Alexander he actually seems more liberated (and even handsomer) after A. has left him. At heart, “Every Day” is just an elaborately convoluted parable of a high-school girl learning to prize a savvy nice guy over a popular cad. But the movie demonstrates why that simple lesson is more than skin-deep.