I love rom coms. I am the girl who shudders every time there’s a loaded glance between two love interests, or who turns crimson at the sight of a first kiss. I am the one who desperately wanted to declare her love on the stage of a school Christmas production after watching Love Actually. Yet in spite of that, I've watched All the Bright Places and several other recent Netflix romcoms with an anger I cannot curtail.  

A new ‘serious romcom’?Netflix

For Netflix, the teen-based rom com is the perfect vehicle to address any and every heavy topic imaginable. The platform’s catalogue counts Thirteen Reasons Why (2017-) and Sex Education (2019-) as ratings superstars - both of which deal with a myriad of traumatic experiences. Light teen comedies from the 1990s and early 2000s such as Clueless (1995) or Mean Girls (2004), which did not take sexism and bullying very seriously, have been replaced with more educational, or at least more emotional, takes on the teen movie genre. These more serious productions might not be perfectly realistic, but they certainly add some depth to films aimed at young people.

All the Bright Places had the ambition to be such a film. Based on a YA novel by Jennifer Niven, it tells the story of Violet, a lonely and quiet teenager who survived her sister in a car crash, and her classmate Finch, who is struck by Violet's sadness and wants to show her that life is still worth living by taking her on a road trip. The film was sold as the tale of two broken adolescents who find solace in each other by starting a meaningful relationship, and who learn to share their respective weaknesses and traumas without judgement. Sounds like the usual Netflix fanfare, no?

But instead of that, we got a perfectly shallow simulacrum of emotions and an Instagram-friendly bunch of “inspiring quotes”. To start with, the cinematography and editing are surprisingly mechanical and unfeeling. Brett Haley, the director, never dares to bring us physically and emotionally closer to the characters, remaining at a distance which inhibits any sort of empathy. This lack is not compensated by the poor sound design. The serious issues explored as well as the romance lent themselves to charged silences, to a meaningful form of sensuality, but this was completely neglected.

All the Bright Places is only one of many interchangeable and shallow Netflix romcoms which are often an insult to young viewers’ emotions and intelligenceZoe Archambault

The actors try their utmost to deliver their unrealistic and pseudo-inspiring lines, while the director spends all his energy on the visuals, saturating and matching colours so overtly that they look like they’ve been passed through an early 2000s Instagram filter. Their lives consequently seem staged and any sincerity is sucked away, just like in any sponsored Instagram post.

This lack of subtlety and emotional intelligence makes the typical teen movie “we’re-so-unconventional-we’re-jumping-head-first-into-the-cold-water” and “laughing-hysterically-on-a-rollercoaster-is-the-height-of-happiness” scenes seem even more fake than usual, even to an indulgent viewer. Not to mention there’s a particularly cringy scene when Finch comes to Violet’s house driving a car full of roses to make her forgive him for not answering her texts. It’s just as stereotypical and wrong as a Hallmark romcom, only a little bit more pretentious.

Some scenes and aspects of the film were promising. Finch is not a tall, ripped white guy with a Colgate smile, like those caricatured in another Netflix romcom, The Kissing Booth (2018). Violet is also not over-sexualized. When Finch and Violet undress to swim, for example, she is wearing mismatched and girlish underwear, a touching detail which corresponds to her age and personality while respecting an all-too-familiar verisimilitude - big progress for a romcom! And the plot twist, which I will not spoil, was a daring choice, defying the usual romcom plot. 


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Nevertheless, by distributing this film, Netflix has once again ruined the romcom and teen movie genres. Their suspiciously self-proclaimed authenticity and diversity policy does not make up for their romcom and teen movie catalogue’s artistic and emotional poverty, which is especially true of most of the content they produce. It is deeply ironic that the heroine of ATBP should declare that what she’s most afraid of is “being ordinary”, when this film, like so many others in the catalogue, is disappointingly formulaic, forgettable and, what’s more worrying, fake. In that, it joins a list of similar Netflix originals of which the list is endless, which includes Atypical (2017-)’s ultra-conventional vision of autism, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before 1 and 2 (2018 and 2020) and Isn’t it Romantic (2019). Instead of accepting their offering of openly sentimental and unambitious shows, Netflix programmers are exploiting the wish for a renewal of the genre expressed by serious teen movies without satisfying it.

Teen movies have the potential to be much less superficial than they seem, but Netflix is slowly yet surely making us forget this potential in favour of an incredibly superficial slew of content.

If you are still looking for a great teen movie or romcom to stream, here are enough recommendations to help you overcome the temptation to click on All the Bright Places:

  •         Your typical, but nevertheless moving, American teen movie about a depressed shy boy opening up to wonderfully eccentric friends and having the best time of his life: The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012). Available on Netflix.
  •         The melancholy, bittersweet coming-of-age story of two insecure people who were once in love, as they go from high school to college in Ireland: Normal People (2020, miniseries). Available on BBC iPlayer and Hulu.
  •         The famous masterpiece about repressive parents, friend groups and the discovery of poetry and beauty: Dead Poets Society (1989). Available on Amazon Prime.
  •         The fresh, quirky and touching adventures of two unusual kids on the run: The End of the F*** World (2017-2019, miniseries). Available on Netflix.
  •         The surprising indie film which managed to turn a story of teen pregnancy into a funny, cute and touching romcom about growing up and learning to make decisions: Juno (2007). Available on Amazon Prime.
  •         The perfect and suspenseful Hitchcock film which explores children’s blind admiration of adults and their loss of innocence: Shadow of a Doubt (1943). Available on Amazon Prime.

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