For those who were charmed by writer-director Brett Haley’s incisive microbudget debut “The New Year,” or his Sam Elliott-starring Hollywood fable “The Hero,” or his crowdpleasing father-daughter dramedy “Hearts Beat Loud,” it might initially come as a surprise to see his name attached to two glossy, unabashedly sentimental Netflix teen dramas within the same year: February’s “All the Bright Places” and this week’s “All Together Now.” Unexpected as it may be at first, the director’s abrupt lane change is one that his style ought to be able to accommodate. There’s a pervasive sense of warmth in all of Haley’s films, and he has an ease with melodrama and contrivance and cliché that somehow never betrays a hint of cynicism or schmaltz. His films always feel honest, even when the stories he’s chosen to tell aren’t.
Unfortunately, that is the case with his latest. Starring Auli’i Cravalho (best known as the voice of “Moana,” and here making a strong case that her career deserves to go much farther than the confines of Disney voice work), “All Together Now” is a well-intentioned, well-acted, well-textured film that sees its better qualities start to dissipate as it piles on miserablism and misfortune en route to an uplifting ending that can’t help but scan as a bit empty. Featuring winning performances all around — including supporting turns from the likes of Fred Armisen and Carol Burnett — “All Together Now” has enough of Haley’s signature humanism to elevate it above the average teen melodrama, but only just.
Set in some lushly photographed corners of Portland, Oregon, “All Together Now” initially presents us with an almost too perfect high school protagonist: Amber (Cravalho) comes on like a ray of sunshine as she works odd jobs, volunteers with the elderly, and arranges school fundraisers to buy the band a new tuba. She lugs around an adorable senior Chihuahua, and holds together a tight band of misfit friends with the sheer magnetism of her optimism. (One of those friends uses a wheelchair (Gerald Isaac Waters), and another is on the spectrum (Anthony Jacques Jr.) — in a welcome and all-too-rare move, Haley has cast actors with those respective conditions in those roles.) And what’s more, she’s also an extremely talented singer with dreams of attending Carnegie Mellon’s theater school, and has a cute soccer player named Ty (Rhenzy Feliz) encouraging her all the way.
All of her good cheer, however, is thrown into sharp relief by the circumstances of her life. Her father having died a few years prior, Amber’s mother (Justina Machado) has seen her grasp on stability steadily loosen through years of alcoholism and abusive relationships, and the two are currently living out of a school bus depot. Amber tries to keep her situation from everyone – friends’ parents, teachers, social workers — and shoulders much of the family’s burden herself. In these early scenes, there’s something quite poignant about Amber’s ability to put on a happy face and lose herself in the parts of her life that she can control, and the film’s depiction of homelessness as simply a fact of life for millions of American teenagers — rather than some overwrought Dickensian device — packs a subtle punch.
Midway through, however, Amber suffers the first in a series of serious setbacks, which start to come fast and furious as her façade of positivity takes one hit after another. Cravalho is quite good at gradually stripping away the sunny layers of her character’s starting persona and replacing them with harder, darker coats of compensatory coldness, but the film becomes too diagrammatic to make her journey feel real, and by the time it arrives at its feel-good finale, too much of its early identity has slipped away.
Adapted from “Silver Linings Playbook” author Matthew Quick’s novel “Sorta Like a Rock Star,” “All Together Now” has plenty to say about community, altruism and the limits of self-reliance that could strike a chord in such stark times. The film is hardly a wasted effort, and Haley demonstrates real potential for tapping into something special by mining this particular vein, but he’ll have to find material that cuts a little deeper to unearth it.