In Jandy Nelson’s 2010 YA novel, The sky is everywhere, 17-year-old Lennon “Lennie” Walker mourns her older sister, who died suddenly of a heart rhythm disorder four weeks earlier. She lives with her grandmother, grandmother, and her uncle Pig in an old house in northern California. Lennie partly works through her grief by writing poems about Bailey and leaving them in random places around town. She is an accomplished clarinetist in the school band, who has just welcomed a new member: Joe Fontaine, a brilliant trumpet player who moved to the city from France. Lennie and Joe clicked right away – they were just… to get each other, as amorous teens do, but things are complicated by the fact that she also pursues an increasingly physical relationship with Bailey’s distraught boyfriend, Toby Shaw. The book forms the basis for a new moviewritten by Nelson and directed by Shirley‘s Josephine Decker. It premieres on Apple TV+ on February 11.
Freak flags fly freely in Nelson’s book, which is fine, although it does make a few characters look more like quirky contraptions than real people. For example, Uncle Pig spends a lot of time in trees, and he’s been married and divorced five times because he can’t resist the romance of proposing to girlfriends. Bohemian Gram is an avid painter and gardener known for putting cummings poems or “a handful of buttons” in Lennie’s brown-bag lunches. Vibrant and goth-y Sarah, Lennie’s best friend, devours works by Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, wears black “even on the beach”, and drives around in a car she calls “Ennui”. Readers will eventually wish for a boring person to show up, just to take the edge off.
A few other big players are so idealized that they don’t seem real. Bailey, for example, comes across as one of the most vivacious people to have ever existed — someone who “did everything: walk, talk, think, laugh, party, at the speed of light — and with his brilliance.” Joe is a heartbreakingly attractive teenager so extraordinarily talented that Lennie has a prolonged hallucination during his band-practicing trumpet solo: “Every boy in the band is lying on the floor in an intoxicating heap. Then the roof flies off, the walls come crashing down, and when I look outside I see the nearby grandstand of redwoods uprooted and making their way up the quad to our classroom, a gang of giant wooden men intertwining their branches. claps.’ Then the nearby river apparently floods the school. Quite a solo!
This results in a book that is so ruthless empathize that it undermines the fact that Lennie and other characters are overwhelmed with grief. Sure, Lennie writes a poem on a bench that says, “I can’t push the dark out of my way,” but in her real life, she’s constantly pushing it aside, discovering life’s little wonders in everything and everyone. Everyone grieves differently, of course, but most people who have lost someone don’t deal with that much violence.
Decker’s film similarly grabs life by the lapel in a way reminiscent of the lovely 2001 Quirkfest benelie† For example, a version of the aforementioned trumpet solo fantasy series appears in all its cartoonish glory; in another scene, we see Lennie and Joe, mesmerized by music, embraced by actors covered in rose bushes – which is less creepy than it sounds. Yes, it’s at odds with an exploration of what it means to lose a loved one, but it looks so beautiful you could overlook it.
Both the book and the film ultimately hold Lennie responsible for her selfish, emotionally destructive behavior; she doesn’t seem to notice that others around her are also devastated. However, this tricky conversation comes very late in the game, which is frustrating. Still, Man with a plan‘s Grace Kaufman, as Lennie, navigates such tonal shifts well and makes her character feel pleasantly real, despite her stylized environment. The community‘s Jacques Colimon gives Joe an attractive sunshine, and DickinsonPico Alexander, as Toby, is suitably gentle and sad – that’s all the material from both actors needs. Jason Segel is pleasant enough as Uncle Big, who is larger than life in the novel but feels assured here. However, the great Cherry Jones, as Gram, gives such a soulful and nuanced performance that she steals the film. One late, heartbreaking scene in particular shows why she’s one of the best actors working today.
Nelson’s tight screenplay is largely true to her book, although she did make a few changes. For example, the ending is more cinematic and grand, in classic rom-com style. Another change, however, is a disappointment: Lennie and Bailey’s mother is dead in the film – a victim of the same heart condition that struck down Bailey; in the novel, their mother simply dropped her children off at Gram and left, never to return. It’s a welcome acknowledgment that sometimes even following one’s bliss has not-so-lucky consequences for others—not a romantic thought perhaps, but an honest one for sure.
David Rapp is the senior Indie editor†