The Sky Is Everywhere, the new Apple TV + film based on the young adult novel by Jandy Nelson, is exactly what you’re picturing based on its title.
Director Josephine Decker steps away from the indie film world to embrace the things a big studio budget can afford (in this case A24 as well as Apple). And she makes sure that every cent is up there on the screen. Decker gives in too much to the sugar high of teen romance, but she and her very committed cast get an A for effort.
The Sky Is Everywhere review
Lennie Walker (played by Grace Kaufman) has stopped living life the way she used to ever since her sister Bailey (Havana Rose Liu) died of the same arrhythmia that killed their mother. She’s becoming expressionistically obsessed with her own grief, letting nothing cheer her up or get into her subconscious, because she’s convinced no one can understand her.
No one, that is, except Toby (Pico Alexander, from Dickinson, another revisionist YA Apple TV + show). Toby was Bailey’s boyfriend, and they both miss the most important person in their lives. Because they aren’t already hardened by grief like Lennie’s grandmother Gram (Cherry Jones) and uncle Big (Jason Segel), they feel like their version of loss is more sympathetic. It gets even more sympathetic when they start kissing each other in the forest.
In the middle of all this, Lennie gives up her spot as first-chair clarinet in the school band to type-A player Rachel (Julia Schlaepfer). She also starts alienating her best friend, Sarah (Ji-young Yoo), refuses to come out of Bailey’s closet for hours at a time, and reluctantly falls for musician Joe Fontaine (Jacques Colimon).
Lennie at first thinks he and Rachel are seeing each other, a misunderstanding. But then she worries what moving on and being happy (and moving away from Toby) will mean for her grief. It’s becoming her identity. What happens when she can’t simply mope and reread Wuthering Heights and hide from the world because of her sadness?
How could you leave me when I needed to possess you?
The first thing to say is there was never really an excuse in teen movies for the “ugly girl meets hot guy” trope. Hollywood would never chance casting someone who wasn’t the most beautiful human you’ve seen that day in the part. And no amount of scrunchies or eyewear could ever hide the pathetic fact that they didn’t want to risk losing money by hiring real ugly people, whatever your version of that looks like.
My problems with The Sky Is Everywhere aren’t really problems the film should have to answer for. We’re going on 60 years of a nonsensical, science-fiction approach to teen dating dynamics. You can’t fault a Greek film for only having Greek actors, can you?
It is, however, ludicrous to keep watching movies and TV shows where someone’s meant to be some kind of chaotic freak show and they’re right off the Beautiful Movie Star Assembly Line. (Apple TV + already pulled this a host of times, probably most egregiously with Little Voice).
Lennie goes through so much “we’re done with subtext” dialogue about how she can’t imagine someone like Joe would like her because she’s the “grief girl.” No, yeah, of course no one would love an insanely talented, well-read, funny, outdoorsy musician who looks like an actress / model.
Again I can’t blame the movie for existing in this continuum, but something’s got to change here. We’re supposed to be in the most freed time of making art in history, and we haven’t advanced beyond She’s All That.
The problem with grief
Kaufman’s performance as Lennie is also a little high key for a film about the quiet ravages of grief. Indeed, you can’t go a single scene without a speech about her feelings delivered with the speed of a Busta Rhymes verse.
It’s a lot, and I have to question whether kids are usually this articulate. My best friend has two high school-age stepchildren, and he’s never heard of them deliver an Albee monologue about what they’re feeling.
There’s also the stuff with Rachel, which goes nowhere. I understand high school movies need antagonists, but the character is weakly thought out. And by the end, with zero prodding, Rachel gives up her grudge against Lennie anyway.
The idea that Lennie is grieving has to carry so much water in this one-hour-and-forty-minute movie, and it just can’t do it. Adding problems like Toby’s continuous revelations about Bailey (deployed whenever the plot starts to flag) feels too schematic.
I’ve come home, I’m so cold, let me in your window
I’m of two minds about everything in The Sky Is Everywhere because it’s directed by Josephine Decker. She is an artist I’ve admired since she started directing low-budget dramas a decade ago, even if I never clicked into her rhythm and characters.
Butter on the Latch and Thou Wast Lovely and Mild are movies of laudable intent that just kind of passed me by. Madeline’s Madeline won over many with its vision of a distaff creative universe hiding in plain sight, but there was (perhaps predictably; I was a 30-year-old man when I saw it) something missing in its fearless abstraction and Jacques Rivette-inspired theatricality. The mood swings that make up the bulk of the early going, and its final moment of catharsis, seemed to not sync up to me.
Her Shirley Jackson biopic Shirley took an appropriately brusque approach to a small chapter in the author’s later life. But I walked away feeling like I didn’t learn much about Jackson (and I don’t mean in a Wikipedia sense, but emotionally, artistically) even if I continued to learn things about Decker, so not at all a bad experience.
Josephine Decker, an American indie
Decker’s one of the only artists from a crop of early 2010s US independents who managed to hang on in American culture. Sometimes it feels like she, Alex Ross Perry, Hannah Fidell and Adam Wingard (and maybe Greta Gerwig, but I place her more squarely in the mid-’00s camp that includes Joe Swanberg, Andrew Bujalski, Todd Rohal and Kentucker Audley) stayed in the spotlight while their peers (Bob Byington, Alex Karpovsky, Dustin Guy Defa, Madeleine Olnek, Zach Clark) have had a little more trouble with funding and continuing development of projects.
None of this is a qualitative assessment. I really like most of those filmmakers (Zach Clark should be working with Fast and the Furious money on whatever he wants). However, you have to hand it to Decker. She got to where she is by doing what she does and nothing less.
Decker puts her own spin on the young adult film
The Sky Is Everywhere bears some very obvious hallmarks of the young adult genre (all the aforementioned concessions to ensure that Lennie is always suffering worse than everyone around her, and that the only cure for her grief is self-destruction deployed at convenient moments). But this is very much Decker’s version.
The Pacific Northwest setting, for one, feels tailored made for her camera. The way she ensures that everything is always coated in plants and moss and leaves; the amiably cluttered house where Lennie and her family reside; the way there’s always some form of labor happening on the property; the impromptu cookouts and singalongs….
This is Decker’s world and nobody else’s. There are new intrusions of studio-bought special effects right out of a Michel Gondry film (falling couches, musical notes suspended on strings, people dressed like plants tucking Lennie and Joe into the earth like children into a bed) that externalize Lennie’s (it must be said already very external) feelings.
Sometimes a big budget doesn’t help
This is all the kind of creativity Decker has displayed in the past, but now she has the wherewithal to just make things appear in a way she didn’t used to. There are downsides to this, like truly baffling Hanna-Barbera-style sound effects that the film can in no way support, including a “sproing” sound effect to alert us to Toby’s erection. That kind of whimsy is unsupportable even in small doses, and there’s a lot of it here.
Still, it’s very cool to see Decker get to play in ever-increasing sandboxes, even if her vision isn’t one with which I always fully gel. Her movies found an appreciative audience from the very beginning, and I think there’s value in her worldview. (I loved spending time in Lennie’s household, even if I couldn’t get on the wavelength of this movie most of the time. But again, it’s very obviously not for me.)
Decker isn’t making franchise films for some of the more evil studios like a lot of her peers, so I support her fully. There are obvious issues with a movie like The Sky Is Everywhere (even the title needs work). But young adult movies are perhaps the most important thing in American media to which no one ever pays any mind.
Take, for instance, Jenny Gage’s film After from 2019. Have you seen it? Have you even heard of it? Because it was one of the most pirated movies of that year. Kids were watching it even if you weren’t.
I thought that the film was perfectly fine. But I do like the idea of an artist like Decker getting to imbue her turn at bat with her politics. These movies are going to keep evolving with or without mainstream approval.
Watch The Sky is Everywhere on Apple TV +
The Sky Is Everywhere premieres Friday on Apple TV +.
Watch on: Apple TV +
Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.
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