In these highly cynical times, it might be hard to process the true-life tale of a young couple’s romance cut short by terminal illness. But the warmth and touching tenderness of “All My Life” melts even the coldest of hearts in its quest to deliver happy and sad tears. Unlike the phony, syrupy, and predictably manipulative devices of a Nicholas Sparks romance (which contains the base similarity that someone dies tragically), this three-hankie weepie holds a surprising amount of heart and hope to accompany all the cathartic crying.
Jenn Carter (Jessica Rothe) is just an average college student, getting her master’s degree in psychology and hanging out with friends Megan (Marielle Scott) and Amanda (Chrissie Fit). But a chance meeting in a sports bar brings about the greatest moment of her life: meeting Solomon “Sol” Chau (Harry Shum Jr.), a digital marketing analyst whose true career passion lies in cooking. They bond over deconstructing the perfect pickup line, which Sol awkwardly fails to produce, nonetheless charming Jenn with his endearing, sweet spirit.
At first, we’re welcomed into the swoon-worthy world of movie make-believe where our heroes are perfectly matched, instantly falling in love with each other. They stumble into picturesque farmer’s markets and Pinterest-friendly locations featuring lots of exposed brick and distressed wood, courtesy of production designer Chris L. Spellman, art director Jarrette Moats and set decorator Jonathan Cappel. It’s a place in which characters are constantly bathed in a warm, golden hour glow by cinematographer Russ T. Alsobrook and accompanied by a delicate but potent symphonic score by composer Lisbeth Scott. It’s a safe haven untouched by devastation. However, that’s where screenwriter Todd Rosenberg conducts a smart, subtle sleight-of-hand trick when layering in the couple’s compelling conflicts.
After Sol and Jenn move in together, real world troubles slowly manifest in the mundane growing pains of their burgeoning relationship. Still, with a set of rules as their guide (the main one being a more eloquent version of “no regrets”), there’s nothing they can’t beat together. Sol’s unhappy with his thankless job, saving up to pursue his culinary dreams, which leads to stressful late nights working at home. Since he’s reticent to quit over money woes, Jenn orchestrates a lavish Thanksgiving dinner where he’s presented with the opportunity to work for her cousin Gigi (Ever Carradine), who owns a hip, local restaurant. With his dream job secured, he stages an elaborate flash-mob proposal replete with boats, balloons and balladeers singing Oasis’ “Don’t Look Back in Anger.” But their bliss isn’t meant to last. They’re dealt an unimaginable blow when Sol is diagnosed with liver cancer. Yet, through reassurance from friends and monetary support from the community, the two find the strength to carry on with their wedding plans, despite the grim odds.
Director Marc Meyers and Rosenberg often show elements other romantic weepies rarely deal with, not just in terms of their protagonists’ dire financial straits, but also their friendships. Though Sol and Jenn’s friends are barely one dimensional and only account for brief appearances, their inclusion shows how friendship dynamics change, both for better and worse, grounding the picture with insight, empathy and authenticity. Just when we think Sol’s best friend Dave (Jay Pharoah) will be the one to bail on him in his time of need, it’s his other friend Kyle (Kyle Allen) who does — which is understandable, as he was previously psychologically scarred by tragedy. It’s also refreshing that the dog Sol and Jenn adopt isn’t a cute, roly-poly puppy, but a chill senior rescue. That subtle, innocuous message increases the “aww” factor.
Rothe and Shum pair very well together, making for an insanely lovely couple. Their on-screen chemistry is undeniable, particularly in sequences that reflect their characters’ adorably captivating qualities — like their playfully flirty interactions during plucky conversations, or their adorkable toothbrush twin dance routine. It takes skilled actors to make those scenes play as cute, not cloying. They also soften some of the film’s precious dialogue, like “Mistakes I can handle. Regrets I can’t live with,” or “All they’ll see is a widow in white,” so those lines come across as unforced.
Given that Rothe has tackled grief before in the sentiments of the “Happy Death Day” franchise, she gives a commanding performance, tapping into her character’s courage, humanity and grace with aplomb. Shum is every inch the leading man: charismatic, handsome and embodying the innate open-heartedness of his character. On the supporting side, Pharoah brings a breezy enthusiasm to his role.
Meyers and Rosenberg have an astute, natural sense of how character and tone work, which makes the dramatic underpinnings of this true-life story function effortlessly without tipping the scales into movie-of-the-week melodrama. Instead, they brilliantly balance and maintain smooth transitions between the lighter moments (like the running gag involving spilled wine, or the wedding prep scenes) and the darker ones when sorrow and negativity threaten to prevail. Perhaps what resounds the loudest, however, is the essence of the picture, the invaluable lesson learned by its heroine: that every minute of our short time together should be made to count. It’s clear these filmmakers have wisely done so here.