High school romance skips the clichés

Harper (Anjini Taneja Azhar) and Tilly (Quinn Liebling) share a schoolyard hug in Young Hearts.

By Richard Ades

“Meeting cute” is a common trope of romcoms. In the naturalistic teenage romance Young Hearts, the filmmakers prefer to have their protagonists meet awkward.

The flick centers on two Portland, Oregon, high schoolers: freshman Harper (Anjini Taneja Azhar) and sophomore Tilly (Quinn Liebling). Even though they’ve been neighbors since childhood, they’ve never really talked until they run into each other one day on the way to school. Thanks to Sarah Sherman’s script and sensitive direction by Sherman and her brother, Zachary Ray Sherman, their dialogue captures the stop-and-start conversation of two kids eager to connect but unsure how to proceed.   

When they finally break out of their reticence, it’s due to the slimmest of coincidences: On a subsequent walk home, Harper eyes the fall foliage overhead and makes the offhand comment that she loves leaves. This gives Tilly the excuse to invite her to his room to view his own collection of dried leaves. Thus reassured that they have something in common, they soon surrender to their obvious attraction and fall into a relationship.

What might make the movie uncomfortable for some parents is that this relationship quickly becomes not only sexual but all-encompassing. Even when they’re not together, Harper and Tilly are making plans and sharing thoughts via texts. This would be a major commitment for adults, let alone kids who are aged 14 and 15, respectively. Aren’t they jumping the gun?

That question does come up, but only in a roundabout way. The filmmakers seem less interested in spinning a cautionary tale than they are in reflecting contemporary teenage attitudes and behaviors. They also seem eager to call out the threads of sexism that remain in effect even in a progressive community like Portland. Harper, for example, endures inuendo for being in an intimate relationship, while Tilly encounters friction only from Harper’s brother (Alex Jarmon), who was previously his best friend.

A key element of the film’s success is that the leads are portrayed likably and realistically by Azhar and Liebling. Though the characters have major backstories—Harper was given up for adoption by her Indian mother at age 3, and Tilly recently lost his own mom—it’s their present behavior that defines them the most. Harper is an outspoken feminist who talks about sexual politics on an early date, and Tilly is the kind of kid whose shyness probably makes the school’s drama club an appealing outlet.

Neither is a stereotypical teenager, any more than Young Hearts is a stereotypical high school flick. Instead, it’s a wise and warmhearted look at two youths who discover love and all its complications a few years ahead of schedule.  

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Young Hearts is available in select theaters and from VOD outlets beginning Feb. 12.

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.