Netflix Loves to Romanticize Mental Health
‘All the Bright Places’ succeeds where ’13 Reasons Why’ failed, but cultural depictions of mental health still need work
The promotional material for Netflix’s new young adult novel adaptation, All the Bright Places, would have you think it’s adding another sappy romance film to its collection. The film’s cover art features two smitten teenagers in a forehead-to-forehead embrace, their noses close enough for the pair to kiss. It’s a recognizable tableau indistinguishable from the latest Nicholas Sparks’ adaptation. Not surprisingly, people have mistaken the movie as a new teen love story. A Glamour U.K. headline, for example, declared the film “The rom-com we need in our lives.” That’s not quite right: All the Bright Places is a soaring love story with witty characters, but it isn’t a rom-com.
The film follows Violet Markey (played by Elle Fanning), a high school senior reeling with survivors’ guilt after the death of her sister, and Theodore Finch (Justice Smith), a 17-year-old struggling with bipolar disorder and manic depression. Their conditions are not named in the film or anywhere in its promotional materials. Instead, Netflix’s one-liner for All the Bright Places is “two teens facing personal struggles form a powerful bond as they embark on a cathartic journey.”
It’s true the film provides a kind of psychological relief, but not for the suicidal character who needs it most. The film shrouds mental health in the trappings of YA romance. Young lovers throw stones at a bedroom window, break curfews, and strip down to their underwear before cannonballing into a body of water. But by the time the story reaches its tragic end, I was left wanting to host an All the Bright Places conference with the film’s staff, a slew of mental health experts, and teens to explore the layers of grief, trauma, and emotional injury the film raises but resolves too easily.
With the rise in loneliness, depression, and other mental health struggles among teenagers, there is a growing desire for cultural depictions that better reflect their new reality. This has resulted in an explosion of films, TV shows, and novels — from Dear Evan Hansen to 13 Reasons Why — that center around mental health. But with this surge in…