All Together Now is Netflix’s latest contribution toward shaping the Gen Z high school film. The teen film always reflects what adults think today’s teens think of themselves: think of Howard Hughes in the ’80s, broaching issues of class; Clueless in the ’90s, looking at the changing American family; and Mean Girls in the aughts, which focused on the issue of the clique. Today, it seems that the adults think the issue to focus on is diversity of race, class, and ability, sometimes all within one person.
Honestly, adults are right about that. Diversity and representation are front and center in Hollywood and in American life today, as they should be. The problem with All Together Now is that it reads like an attempt to formulate a perfect response to the call for diversity, rather than an actual expression of diversity and authentic humanity.
All Together Now, based on the book Sorta Like A Rockstar by Matthew Quick, follows the story of Amber Appleton during her senior year of high school. Talented and selfless, Amber coordinates the school’s annual variety show fundraiser, works at a donut shop and a retirement home, wants to enter Carnegie Mellon’s drama program, and lives on a school bus with her mom. Her mom, Becky, struggles with alcoholism and with an abusive boyfriend named Oliver.
The movie’s first half revolves around Amber and Becky conflicting over how to handle money; Becky wants to move them in with Oliver and Amber doesn’t feel safe. Amber also needs money to get to Carnegie Mellon for her audition. After Amber angrily flees her mother to spend a weekend at her friend and crush Ty’s vacation home practicing for her audition, Becky dies in a drunk driving accident with Oliver. Amber’s dog then falls ill and needs surgery, so she skips her audition and drops out of school to earn the money to save him.
Finally, all of the people whom Amber has helped over the course of the story force her to let them give back: they dedicate this year’s variety show to her, with Ty emceeing, and raise her a ton of money. Now she can pay for her pup’s surgery, and the film ends with her entering her make-up audition at Carnegie Mellon.
I commend this film for its attempt at showing diversity of all types. Auli’i Cravalho is Hawaiian and multiracial. Amber’s best friend Ricky (Anthony Jacques) appears to be somewhere on the autism spectrum. Her crush, Ty (Rhenzy Feliz) is a dark-skinned Dominican man, and her friend Chad (Gerald Isaac Waters) uses a wheelchair. Diversity and representation are essential in film, but for me they fall flat in this story because nobody’s non-normative traits influence their character – except for Ricky, maybe. To me, the movie reads as straight, white, normative culture spoken through the mouths of people with marginalized identities in order to signal diversity. Without discussing how race or ability impact these kids’ lives, their ragtag bunch looks much more like “colorblindness” than like true representation.
The story feels like the diversity: almost there, but not real enough. Amber is homeless and she lost her father and her mother struggles with alcoholism and an abusive boyfriend and they die and her dog gets sick and needs surgery. Focusing on one or two of these issues deeply could have been so powerful, but with this many they just pile on. To be fair, it is impressive for a popular film to take on this many real-life struggles and to develop its conflicts through social issues and personal growth rather than through people just being mean and immature to each other and then apologizing, like many relationship/teen movies. But it just feels like there’s too much going on here and none of it gets time to breathe.
All Together Now is successful when it genuinely takes on life’s struggles. Becky’s situation especially receives no sugar-coating: she repeatedly promises to stop drinking and then continues, and does the same with her abusive boyfriend. This reflects patterns that happen in real life, and I appreciate that this movie is portraying them as continuous struggles that can’t be overcome with one bout of motivation, even with a daughter to fight for. And Amber learns that Becky has died, Auli’i Cravalho’s acting as Amber is understated and beautifully magnified by cinematography that doesn’t force her to put on a dramatic performance to show just how alone she now is.
The best part by far is the film’s usage of positive relationships. Ricky’s mom (Judy Reyes) is a supportive caregiver and role model; Amber’s favorite retirement home resident Joan (Carol Burnett) is a strong, powerful, and generous older woman who also serves as a source of support. Ty is a teenage boy who is honest, introspective, and willing to apologize when he’s wrong. I love the representation of support, nurturing, strength, and care in this movie. And I love that the message to young women is that they don’t have to carry the world on their shoulders, that it’s okay to lean on their communities. That lesson feels more real and important than the pile of trauma that ultimately falls short.
All Together Now makes a powerful impact in its representation of positive teen relationships, but its attempt to represent more trauma and diversity than the story can handle deters it from reaching its apparent goal of serving as the ultimate “real” teen flick of 2020.