Men like movies about war; teenage girls like movies about beautiful dying girls finding love. How else to explain the glut of stories about cancer-stricken teenagers, such as “The Fault In Our Stars,” “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” and that early-aughts soapy classic, “A Walk to Remember”? The genre may have traded in Mandy Moore’s squeaky clean appeal for a slightly edgier Shailene Woodley, but the beautiful dying girl remained resolute in her insistence that prince charming never pity her, even as the movie around her urged audiences to do just that.
In “Everything, Everything,” director Stella Meghie remains true to the beautiful dying girl form, save for one thing: This time she’s black and beautiful, with a glorious head of natural curls to boot. Her name is Maddy Whittier, and she’s played by outspoken up-and-comer Amandla Stenberg. Best known as Rue from “The Hunger Games,” this grown-up Stenberg is a long way from climbing trees and scraping knees for District 11. In fact, everything is immaculate and glossy in Maddy’s world, which consists only of the effortlessly contemporary house that she is not allowed to leave.
Maddy was born with a rare auto-immune disorder called Severe Combine Immune Deficiency (SCID), which confines her permanently to her house upon risk of certain infection and possible death. Her mother, Pauline (Anika Noni Rose), is a doctor who rules Maddy’s small universe with a gentle iron fist. Their Los Angeles house is equipped with an airtight entryway, and Maddy’s clothes must be sterilized before she can wear them. The only other people allowed inside are Maddy’s nurse, Carla (Ana de la Reguera), and Carla’s daughter, Rosa (Danube Hermsillo). Other than that, Maddy entertains herself writing book reviews and building models for her online architecture class.
That is, until a mini Leonardo DiCaprio moves in next door. His name is Olly (Nick Robinson) and he sports sensible rock star-length hair that sweeps across his perfectly chiseled face. Maddy notices him immediately through her floor-to-ceiling glass windows, waving shyly when he catches her staring. Through written flyers, the two exchange numbers and begin a texting friendship, like any normal teenagers. Meghie makes her most daring directorial liberties here, smartly rendering their conversations in brightly colored fantasy settings so that the two actors can actually play off of each other. She uses Maddy’s architecture designs as inspiration, putting one scene in an imaginary diner. Maddy puts an astronaut figurine in each of her models, and the real-life version provides some much needed comedic relief.
With Carla’s help, the star-crossed lovers arrange an in-person meeting. Olly is firmly instructed to stay on the other side of the room at all times, giving new meaning to the “three feet on the floor” rule. They can’t stick to it for too long, though, and sheltered Maddy finally gets to experience her first kiss. When Pauline finds out about these secret assignations, she fires Carla and takes away Maddy’s phone, cutting off her only means of contacting Olly. Backed into a corner, Maddy decides to find out once and for all what the outside world is like. On pain of death, she chooses life. The young couple have a brief jaunt to Hawaii before Maddie’s immune system shuts down and she is rushed to the hospital.
“Everything, Everything” is not for everyone, but it will satisfy a certain subset of teenage girls who are compelled by watching fragile girls come-of-age with the help of a pretty boy. It’s lacking the star-studded cast of “The Fault in Our Stars,” though Stenberg and Robinson are charming and comfortable onscreen. Rose, a Tony-winning theater actress who played opposite Jennifer Hudson in “Dreamgirls,” is equal parts firm and loving as Pauline, and proves herself a force on film.
It may not break the mold in many ways but one, but the impact of that one is far from trivial. At a recent pre-screening that was open to the public, a particularly loud faction of teenage girls commandeered the front section, screaming over Olly and Maddy’s first kiss and tittering nervously at her morning-after glow. Their volume was a reminder of just how rare it is for these girls to see a someone who looks like them as the star of a huge studio movie, and getting the guy, no less.
Was their shrieking distracting? Sure, but their joy was contagious. And that, as they say, is everything.
“Everything, Everything” opens in theaters today, May 19.