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ALL TOGETHER NOW (2020) review

August 28, 2020



written by: Marc Basch and Brett Haley
produced by: Marty Bowen, Isaac Klausner and Jonathan Montepare
directed by: Brett Haley
rated: PG (for thematic content, some language and brief suggestive comments)
runtime: 92 min.
U.S. release date: August 28, 2020 (Netflix)


What prevents good-hearted people who continuously go out of their way to help others accept help from those they’ve impacted? We probably all have a friend or family member like that. Are they too stubborn, embarrased or prideful to ask for help? Do they even see that help is available to them? Do they realize they need help? So many questions swirled in my mind after watching Brett Haley’s latest film, “All Together Now”, while wiping the tears streaming from my exhausted face. There are other themes present in this tender and endearing dramedy, but this idea of accepting help from others was the standout.

Set in modern-day Portland, “All Together Now” follows high school senior Amber Appleton (a charming Auli’i Cravalho who effortlessly carries the film), a talented and hard-working young woman with a positive attitude, regardless of her circumstances. As the film opens, we’re introduced to Amber at an ESL class of Korean seniors she teaches, enthusiastically leading them through Shirley Ellis’ “The Clapping Song” from 1965. It’s an opening contagious in its sweetness and fun, at sets the tone for the rest of the film’s heartfelt tone, free of an ounce of cynicism. From there, we also see her at a local donut shop where she works part time and then she hops on her bike and takes a fresh six-pack to the nearby senior home, where she volunteers, primarily checking in on a surly Joan (a welcome and delightful Carol Burnett).




It immediately becomes clear that Amber has a positive impact wherever she spends time. The guy she works for at the donut shop, Lloyd (Jerzy Gwiazdowski), proudly shows her the GED certificate she helped him study for. She has clearly developed a connection with her best friend, Ricky (Anthony Jacques) – who’s considered slightly different by some, yet a master of puns – whom she has been tutoring for some time. At school, she has cheerfully founded and organized a variety show for the last three years, overseen by the cool and hip teacher, Mr. Franks (Fred Armisen, no stranger to the Portland scene) along with her friends, thespian Chad (Gerald Isaac Waters), tango-dancing Jordan (Taylor Richardson) and the only one with a vehicle, Ty (Rhenzy Feliz), who Amber kind of has a crush on. Without a doubt, there’s a sense of fulfillment Amber gets simply by being in the presence of these people who love and appreciate her, it is nevertheless quite obvious that she makes their world a better place.

It would indeed seem like this do-gooder is too good to be true, but the more you get to know her, the more impressed you’ll be with her disposition considering all she’s been through. She and her mother, Becky (Justine Machado, of “One Day at a Time”), live out of a school bus that her mother drives for a living. After a series of unfortunate events, they are homeless after Amber’s father died suddenly and the situation with Becky’s on-again/off-again toxic boyfriend, Oliver (who’s never seen, but the weight of his presence is felt), is not a good one for Becky’s alcoholism.

We learn that Amber’s optimism and cheerfulness is definitely a choice, but it’s also a coping mechanism, one that hides some deep hurts. While there is hope for the future, considering Amber has a shot at Carnegie Mellon University, thanks to her father (an alumni of the prodigious school) passing on his singing/songwriting genes, it’s challenging when the daughter is more mindful of budgeting and finances than the mother is. She gets along fine with her mother, but she is wary that her mother will relapse or make a bad decision that will affect them both.

Amber keeps all her belongings in her backpack, including whatever cash she makes at her jobs and a notebook where she writes down finance goals like rent and the cost of plane tickets to Pittsburgh to audition at Carnegie Melon, among other things. In that notebook there’s a picture of younger Amber with her parents and their cute little dog Bobby Big Boy, photo booth keepsake of happier times. Bobby is thankfully still around and travels everywhere with Amber, fitting nicely and adorably in her backpack.




When that backpack is stolen after Amber spends the night sleeping on a park bench, it begins a domino effect of devastating events for the young woman. It would be a disservice to go into detail as to what those events are, one of them was quite shocking and the other wasn’t too surprising, but both of them happening feels like a lot. Nevertheless, because these characters are so likeable and we’re specifically rooting for Amber, it’s a story that earns its heartstring-tugging water works. Granted, some may find the story’s developments to be a bit hammy and maybe too saccharine, but I don’t buy it.

Haley co-wrote “All Together Now” along with Marc Basch (his collaborator on the director’s previous cynical-free films, “I’ll See You in My Dreams”, “Hero”, and “Hearts Beat Loud”), adapting the 2010 novel Sort of a Rockstar by Matthew Quick (author of Silver Linings Playbook), and this is a story that fits into Haley’s wheel house, which is a track record for characters viewers truly want to succeed in life. At one point, Bryce Dallas Howard was slated to helm this adaptation, so it’s interested to consider what the film would’ve been like if Haley (and Basch) wasn’t involved.

Being a fan of Haley’s approach, I’m glad committed to this project and while it proves to be a tremendous vehicle to showcase Cravalho’s talent, what I appreciated the most (beyond the themes of grief and loss as well as it’s main message of accepting help from others) was the film’s teenagers are presented. They’re not constantly complaining, disrespectful, sarcastic or backstabbing, which is how so many teens are often depicted in film and television. They’re also not always looking at their phone, which may not be all that realistic, but it’s refreshing. It may seem odd that Amber doesn’t even have a phone, but when you consider her life situation, it makes sense. Come to think of it, maybe the fact that she doesn’t have screen access 24/7 is a reason why she’s so positive and upbeat.

The core kids in “All Together Now” are nice to each other and yet it never seems forced or “acted”. They just come across as good kids, ones I’d be happy to know as a middle-aged adult and ones I’d be cool hanging out with when I was a teen. It seems rare to have a scene in which a distraught Amber shows up on Ty’s doorstep, just to unload and talk. Typically, we’d see text interactions pop on the screen, because, well, that’s the way teens talk, but here we see them listen and acknowledge each other. It may not seem like much, but it’s a welcome and noticeable change that isn’t taken for granted.




Consider the scene that follows, which finds Ty offering to drive a heavy-hearted Amber out to his family’s beautiful vacation home in the mountains. At no point was it previously established that Ty is a “rich kid”, nor does he carry himself in a stereotypical manner. He freely offers what he has an although it is awkward at first for Amber, she accepts and winds up practicing a song her father wrote “Feels Like Home” (considering Cravalho is primarily known for voicing and singing the titular role in “Moana”, this is a treat), which she hopes to perform at her audition) with Ty’s piano accompaniment. It may seem like a dream long weekend for a couple of kids, but it’s easy to see how needed it is for Amber – to not have to worry where she’ll sleep at night or where the money is coming in, for a change.

It also helps that the adults have a welcome characterization as well and aren’t aloof, exasperating, abusive or absent, which is often quite typical of teen-centric movies. Cravalho and Machado have natural chemistry and the fact that they look like they could actually be related is uncanny casting. Machado conveys a palpable weight to the role, which is required considering her character’s behavior and struggles. Things are said between mother and daughter that can be hurtful, something that is relatable for anyone who’s parented a teen. Since Amber can’t always rely on her mother, it’s encouraging that she has other adults in her life to lend some support and help. Besides Armisen’s helpful teacher role and the endearing back and forth Cravalho has with Burnett’s acerbic and sweet character, there’s Ricky’s patient and kind mother Donna (Judy Reyes) who provides the acceptance and love Amber needs.

“All Together Now” culminates with the aforementioned variety show, finishing off with a needed does of fun and delight to balance the story’s heavier emotional subject matter. Haley and Cravalho handle the tone and feel of the film with a great balance of grace and frankness, carefully and thankfully avoiding any overt syrup. There is something to be said about watching a well-earned happy ending and here’s a movie that certainly earns and offers just that.



RATING: ***1/2

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