In ‘The Sky Is Everywhere,’ conventional melodrama meets a visionary director

Joséphine Decker’s new film, “The Sky Is Everywhere”, is the exception that proves the rule. Usually, the very nature of a director’s cinematic authorship involves involvement in the script, regardless of what the credits say. Decker is one of the most original female directors working today – her career in feature films began with ‘Butter on the Latch’, and her first screening, in 2013, was a ‘Rite of Spring’ moment for the few lucky who were there. She has something like a specialty: the dramatization of women artists and the entanglement of their creative and personal conflicts, which she invests with a complete cinematographic imagination and a furious passion. The theme continues in “The Sky Is Everywhere” (coming to Apple TV+ Friday), the story of Lennie Walker (Grace Kaufman), a high school student of immense musical talent who has been crushed by the sudden death of her sister. The screenwriter, Jandy Nelson, adapted her own novel of the same title. Nelson also serves as an executive producer, and her presence may have made it difficult to assert Decker’s directorial paternity. which are among the treasures of recent cinema.

The plot of “The Sky Is Everywhere” is an inherently emotional melodrama. Lennie and his late older sister, Bailey (played, in flashbacks, by Havana Rose Liu), were raised, after their mother’s sudden death, by their grandmother, called Gram (Cherry Jones), who is an entertainer. , and their uncle Big (Jason Segel), who is a New Age handyman, in a rustic home in rural California, not far from a redwood forest and a bustling downtown. Lennie and Bailey, only a year or two old, were planning to go to Juilliard together (Lennie is a gifted clarinetist), but Bailey died suddenly at school of congenital heart disease. In his grief, Lennie gives up his musical pursuits (leaving his school band solos to the coveted queen bee Rachel, played by Julia Schlaepfer). She also develops a relationship with a new kid at school, fellow musician Joe Fontaine (Jacques Colimon), who is a trumpeter and guitarist. But Bailey’s bereaved boyfriend, Toby Shaw (Pico Alexander), keeps coming into the house, and in their mutual love for Bailey, the couple also develop romantic feelings.

Indeed, “The Sky Is Everywhere” is a set of quasi-musical variations on the theme of mourning. It’s a story of the endless darkness of the constant, unrelieved sense of loss, of the effort to find pleasure in the midst of anguish (and to do so without feeling guilty for betraying the devotion of grief) , and how to break the implosive cycle of one’s own pain and reconnect with others. It’s a movie about how to live, about how it’s possible to go on living, and it’s a volatile mix of big, intimate tragedy, middle-class, suburban coming-of-age themes and the creative impulse of a female artist. However, large premises alone don’t guarantee great drama, and the script doesn’t give much substance to the characters or leave much work for Decker and the actors to do. There is virtually nothing in the personality and actions of Lennie, his friends and family that does not match, with programmed simplicity, the story’s forced march toward resolution, and the flatness of the characters n is matched only by the relentless evidence of their emotional feelings. expression.

The action vacillates between sickening perky and raging melancholy, though the highs don’t erupt with a manic sense of danger and the furies aren’t within striking distance of the abyss. Above all, it conveys an idea of ​​YA literature as approved literature; there’s little to see that wouldn’t pass through the eye of a Hays Code needle, and the protagonist and her teenage cohorts don’t come off as either a teenage idea of ​​teens or an adult. , but as a representation of teenagers who would fly with school boards in the most conservative jurisdictions. He does a great no-favors casting; Kaufman has a thoughtful and energetic presence, an unvarnished and ardent focus, but she’s too often overwhelmed by the film’s emotional stereotypes. (Segel, one of the leading performers of the past two decades, hasn’t made enough movies lately, and he gets the best lines from the movie and invests them with quiet, abraded irony.) Yet despite the schematic simplicity of a story that is filled with patterns and emotions of mechanical superficiality and wacky sweetness, Decker achieves it with images of ecstatic energy and passionate inventiveness, with vanitas wheels free that, for brief periods of time, transform prefabricated feelings into immediate experiences, lend an element of surprise to pre-programmed emotion, and turn Lennie’s limited story into a vision of transcendent wonder. It’s a movie that’s almost waiting to be super-cut in its highlights and re-dubbed.

Before the plot begins, Decker, in collaboration with cinematographer Ava Berkofsky, evokes a floating imagistic rapture of memory by means of sun, light, water and glow, with a work of camera dipping and swirling. Then, when memory gives way to the return of painful grief, as Lennie sits alone in the bedroom she shared with Bailey, light suddenly falls into nighttime darkness and the sky becomes fiery amidst a landscape waving paper collages. Throughout the film, even in unexceptional action scenes, the camera rushes, dips back, swirls and pivots with urgency, indeed energizing familiar situations and feelings with heightened and stylized visual rhetoric. There’s a stunning moment in a scene of conventional banality: a flashback to Bailey’s funeral service in a church, as the perspective soars upwards, in a majestic crane-shot that seems attached to the anguished gaze and ecstatic de Lennie, giving a celestial dimension to private emotion. .

Decker is one of the great choreographic filmmakers, and a fantastical dance sequence set in city streets – Lennie’s imaginary take on Bailey’s lyrical presence and magical power – freely blends flowing movement with vigorous dancing. modeled. The scene combines Bailey’s (and his many friends’) joy of movement with Lennie’s joy of watching them move, until it brings Lennie back to bitter reality with an aesthetic touch no less refined. Decker’s unusual vision of familiar events – his dive camera, apparently on a drone or crane, flying through the air to get to Lennie playing the clarinet at his window; the swirling camera under the sunlit canopy of redwood branches – amplifies its power through wild fantasies. A dramatically sweet scene, in which Lennie and Joe lie together in the grass and listen to Bach through headphones, explodes with a primal fantasy of green-armed earth spirits adorning the young lovers with flowers. A scene in which Lennie flees to be alone with his grief, explained in his torrential voice-over, is made all the more intense and disturbing by the incongruity of its juxtapositions – heavy furniture falling and crashing all around she as her stride shifts to a flat-out run, and she saves herself by diving through a gate of sun and sky.

“The Sky Is Everywhere” is a film of inner vision, fantasy and symbolism, which coexists with drama even if it doesn’t quite merge with it. Along with the inherent inhibitions of a commercial production come the equipment, crew, and time that make possible the more elaborate scenes of the meticulously designed and executed film of amazement. Moments like these blossom and display the possibilities that open up for a director who approaches the toolkit of a decently-budgeted production like a toy chest. They are a rebuke to the makers of even more lavishly funded productions who, whether they work overtly in fantasy or fail to find the element of fantasy in their realism, don’t even attempt the bold and dazzling inspirations that abound in Decker’s cinematic universe.

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