Recently, this critic was reminded of the existence of author Lurlene McDaniel’s sizable bibliography of young adult books focused on kids and teens dealing with horrible illnesses, ailments, and eventual death. McDaniel is hardly the only YA author to focus on such topics — though she’s certainly the most prolific — but for a generation of readers, it was McDaniel who introduced such heavy plots as something the younger set could be trusted to understand. In 2010, Jandy Nelson’s debut novel “The Sky Is Everywhere” continued the tradition, following a heartbroken sister attempting to deal with the messy emotional aftermath of her beloved big sister’s death.
Grief is a fertile, if uncomfortable topic, and Nelson’s book approached it with the kind of open-hearted honesty it deserved, wrapped up in a careful package that made it accessible enough for the teenage audience it was meant to serve. A cinematic version? It could be maudlin or silly, leaning too much into the pain or way too much into the more cutesy elements of the story (its leading lady, musical prodigy Lennie, is prone to penning her thoughts on leaves and napkins and closet walls, a creative if potentially too zany way to show how she processes her pain). But in the hands of director Josephine Decker, a filmmaker uniquely suited to depicting personal expression on the big screen, the film version of “The Sky Is Everywhere” makes for a satisfying and special take on a particular sub-genre of YA story.
And while some of those too-cute elements might sound grating when simply reeled off — there are a variety of colorful musical fantasy sequences that scream both “Umbrellas of Cherbourg” and “La La Land” in equal measure, plus Jason Segel as a pot-smoking uncle who owns a van expressly for the purpose of sharing secrets — Decker grounds them in such emotional authenticity that they are nearly impossible to scoff at.
Decker, best known for her fraught features like “Madeline’s Madeline” and “Shirley” — very different films about creativity and pain, to put it in the simplest terms — brings love and care to all of her characters, and that’s what makes the difference between a maudlin YA weepie and a feature that holds emotional resonance for a wide audience. In short, it’s not just for kids, and Decker’s own wild creative streak sets “The Sky Is Everywhere” a cut above other films ostensibly of its kind (this week even sees the release of a different kind of YA grief drama on yet another streamer, the Joey King–starring “The In Between,” a film that Decker’s bests by nearly every metric).
Sisters Bailey (Havana Rose Liu) and Lennie (Grace Kaufman) couldn’t be closer, despite some pronounced differences. Big sister Bailey is the more outgoing of the pair, a dramatic theater kid who does everything with extra oomph, and little sister Lennie is just happy to stand in her sunshine, even though she’s in possession of her own artistic talents: She’s her school’s best clarinet player, a status constantly threatened by resident mean girl Rachel, played by Julia Schlaepfer. Bailey has already passed away when Decker’s film opens, though Nelson’s script often flips back in time to show us what took her, how it happened, what occurred before, and plenty more.
Lennie’s family has already endured tragedy: her mother passed away when the girls were just small, taken by the same sudden aneurysm that stole Bailey (a tweak from Nelson’s novel that works wonderfully). Suddenly, shy Lennie is left alone with her zany grandmother (Cherry Jones) and zany uncle (Segel). Also around, much to Lennie’s dismay: Bailey’s heartbroken boyfriend Toby (Pico Alexander), who has plenty of secrets to share with Lennie about the girl she thought she knew best.
And that’s not all! When Lennie finally returns to school weeks after Bailey’s death, she’s shocked to discover that life has continued on without her. That includes her chipper BFF Sarah (Ji-young Yoo, delightful), the oddly menacing Rachel, and sparkling new guy Joe Fontaine (Jacques Colimon), a fellow musical prodigy. On its surface, “The Sky Is Everywhere” addresses Lennie’s grief by way of an increasingly complicated love triangle, as Joe charms her just as Toby’s own pain speaks to her on another level. Salacious? Never. Instead Decker and her talented stars find honesty in what could be a ready-made soap opera.
Mostly, however, it’s how “The Sky Is Everywhere” feels that makes it so special. Rich, colorful cinematography from Ava Berkofsky and creative, careful production design from Grace Yun help imagine Lennie’s world, a burst of life that approximates the wildness of teenage feelings (hormones) and Lennie’s own deep wonder and hurt in equal measure. It’s an immersive experience, so full that it even helps some of the film’s less refined elements go down easier. If we’re going to have to watch Jason Segel smoke pot and yell about his honesty van, or Cherry Jones lavish her attention on a massive spread of wild roses, why not let it be in this context?. The YA grief drama may have yet to go out of fashion, but Decker’s film is the first one in a long time to prove why it shouldn’t.
“The Sky Is Everywhere” will be in limited theaters and available to stream on Apple TV+ on Friday, February 11.