LOS ANGELES (Variety.com) – How can she ignore the boy next door? Well, she can’t. Never mind that 18-year-old Maddy Whittier (Amandla Stenberg) has been told by her protective mom (Anika Noni Rose) that she can never leave their hermetically sealed home because she’s been diagnosed with Severe Combined Immune Deficiency (SCID), a genetic condition that makes her “allergic to the world.” When Olly (Nick Robinson), a hunky teen with floppy hair, moves into the neighborhood with his dysfunctional family, the girl in the bubble is immediately smitten with the boy on the other side of her window — and, after a while, more than willing to risk infection for some interaction.
Such is the premise of “Everything, Everything,” the latest screen adaptation of a YA novel about young lovers who try to surmount apparently insurmountable obstacles in the way of what could be a tragically short happily ever after. For the first hour or so, it is unabashedly sappy yet modestly engaging, buoyed by the low-key charm of its two leads. But then an implausible third-act reveal spoils the fun, and the movie never recovers.
To her credit, director Stella Meghie devises imaginative visual stratagems during several scenes depicting digital communications between Maddy and Olly. Rather than submit her audience to boring views of texting and typing, she shares her characters’ fantasies of chatting face-to-face in the outside world. Or, to be more precise, in life-size versions of diners and libraries that Maddy, a budding architect, has constructed as scale models. (Yes, that sounds impossibly gimmicky, but it works, both dramatically and emotionally.) Another clever touch: Maddy often thinks of herself as an astronaut, encased in a protective suit in order to survive in a hostile environment, so, sure enough, an astronaut periodically pops up in the fantasies to offer advice and enact sight gags.
When Maddy and Olly finally do wind up in the same room together — thanks to the rules-breaking intervention of Carla (Ana de la Reguera), Maddy’s supportive nurse — they must stand far apart as they make self-conscious small talk. The more comfortable they get, the closer they move toward each other. Here and elsewhere, Stenberg’s radiant sincerity effectively counterbalances Robinson’s awkward empathy. It also helps that both actors are able to engage in jokey banter without sounding like slick sitcom stereotypes.
Inevitably, Maddy’s mom puts the kibosh on the budding romance, insisting that her daughter will forever be too physically vulnerable for anything like a normal life. One thing leads to another, Maddy and Olly impulsively fly away for a Hawaiian vacation, and a medical crisis ensues. But then something worse happens: Scriptwriter J. Mills Goodloe, working from a novel by Nicola Yoon, springs a gobsmacking twist that demands we believe a seemingly sympathetic character actually is mentally ill, if not borderline-psychotic. (It should be noted that the Immune Deficiency Foundation already has issued a statement condemning this plot development in particular, and the movie’s depiction of SCID in general.)
Even before things start to fall apart, “Everything, Everything” is too dreamily slow-paced for its own good, thereby allowing too much time for viewers to question minor details they might not have noticed were they fully engaged with the narrative. (How did Maddy, who hasn’t left her house in 18 years, acquire the photo ID she’d need to board a plane? And how does she intend to pay what must be a humongous credit card bill?)
On the other hand, viewers who actually prefer their romantic dramas to be dreamily slow-paced likely will be willing to ignore such minutiae and simply go with the flow. Indeed, they may even shrug off the third-act reveal as a minor speed bump on the road toward a crowd-pleasing resolution.