Teenage romance suffers from terminal niceness

Maddy Whittier (Amandla Stenberg, right), a teenager with a rare health condition, is afraid to tell her mother (Anika Noni Rose) she’s fallen for the boy next door. (Warner Bros. Entertainment/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.)

By Richard Ades

Maddy Whittier has been diagnosed with a rare condition called severe combined immune deficiency, or SCID. As a result, the teen is never allowed to leave the sterile home her physician-mother has designed to protect her from the world.

Stella Meghie, the director of Everything, Everything, seems to think we viewers need to be similarly protected from the world—or, at least, from the ebbs and flows that make it a challenging place to live. Together with screenwriter J. Mills Goodloe, she’s adapted Nicola Yoon’s best-selling novel in a way that filters out any darkness or unpleasantness. In the process, she also filters out most of the character quirks and dramatic tension that would have brought the story to life.

All that’s left is the bland, if heavy-breathing, tale of a teenage romance that faces more than the usual number of obstacles.

When we first meet Maddy (Amandla Stenberg), she seems to have come to terms with a life that must be lived within her L.A. home’s four walls. She never sees anyone other than her widowed mother (Anika Noni Rose), her sympathetic nurse (Ana de la Reguera) and Rosa (Danube Hermosillo), a friend who will soon leave town.

Then, about the time she turns 18, Maddy notices that the family moving in next door has a teenage son, Olly (Nick Robinson). Olly also notices her and immediately starts trying to get to know her. Though Maddy’s protective mom attempts to keep them apart, the two soon succeed in exchanging phone numbers and texts. From that point, it’s only a matter of time before Maddy starts conniving ways to meet this charming young man in person, whatever health risks it might pose for herself.

I haven’t read Yoon’s novel, but I get the feeling it’s far less filtered than Meghie’s film. One clue is that we’re told Olly has dark tendencies, but he doesn’t come across that way at all other than uttering the PG-13-rated flick’s one cuss word. We also see only hints of the difficult family situation that would explain his alleged darkness: a father who is abusive toward Olly, his sister and particularly toward his mother.

As written by screenwriter Goodloe and played by Robinson, Olly is simply a nice guy. He’s the kind of boyfriend any mother would be glad to find for her daughter—unless, of course, her daughter was living with SCID.

Even blander is Stenberg’s portrayal of Maddy. Viewers who caught last year’s Loving might be reminded of a younger Mildred, the woman (played by Ruth Negga) who bravely challenged her state’s laws against interracial marriage. Not only is there a vague physical resemblance, but both possess an inner calm that survives anything life throws at them. If Mildred’s calm seemed more deep and profound than Maddy’s, it may be because she wasn’t forced to utter romantic inanities like “Love can’t kill me” and “I loved you before I knew you.”

As a teenage romance involving a girl with a serious medical problem, Everything, Everything is likely to be compared to 2014’s The Fault in Our Stars. Such comparisons collapse, however, in the face of that tear-jerker’s believable characters and complicated emotions.

The would-be lovers in Everything, Everything are as generic as the tale’s title and as sterile as the environment in which they meet. The romantic fantasy may find its share of young fans, but only if they can overlook the complete lack of depth beneath its glossy, unruffled surface.

Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)

Everything, Everything (PG-13) opens Friday (May 19) at theaters nationwide.