YA adaptations in film often get an undeservedly bad rap, if only because popular contemporary YA fiction—at least of the sort that tends to garner enough mainstream attention to land feature film or television deals—is known for often being tremendously sad and cloyingly emotional. (Think more The Fault in Our Stars rather than The Hunger Games.) Usually, they involve death, often of a major character or someone close to a major character. Ugly crying, for the reader, at least, is the norm. So, consider this your warning going in that The Sky Is Everywhere is an emotional ride, one that frequently skirts the line between sharply truthful and painfully saccharine. (Usually ending up in the realm of the former, but not always.) Yet its whimsical, fairytale feel generally keeps the story from feeling like something you’ve seen before.
Adapted from the novel of the same name by author Jandy Nelson, the story centers on Lennie Walker (Grace Kaufman), a teen musical prodigy who’s struggling to figure out how to keep going in the wake of the sudden death of her older sister Bailey (Havana Rose Liu). The two sisters were exceptionally close, and much of Lennie’s plans for her life after high school revolved around the fact that the pair would do them together, from becoming roommates to attending Julliard. To say that Lennie doesn’t know who she is anymore without her sister is an understatement and her sense of self is further rocked throughout the film by the revelation of several key secrets Bailey had been keeping from her.
Too often, popular culture likes to paint grief as something noble or beautiful, a strange kind of othering by which losing a person who mattered to you means that you will forever be defined by your relationship to them. (For example, Cathy and Heathcliff in Lennie’s favorite book, Wuthering Heights.) The Sky Is Everywhere is wonderfully honest about the fact that grief is an ugly, awful thing, something that can often make us ugly and awful as a result of our feeling it. Lennie’s abandonment of her friends, her occasionally breathtaking cruelty toward her offbeat grandmother and uncle (Cherry Jones and Jason Segal in a pair of truly weird bit performances that you’ll either find charming or infuriatingly performative), her desire to self-sabotage all of the things she’d planned to do with her life—these are all understandable behaviors, even if they can often make Lennie hard to like.
As a result, Kaufman’s performance is the highlight of the film, as she deftly conveys the riot of emotions that seem to exist within Lennie at any given moment: Grief, horror, guilt and rage, at both her sister for leaving her and at herself for ever daring to consider that she might find joy in her life again. Even during Lennie’s ugliest moments, Kaufman manages to keep the character sympathetic and relatable, and her clear emotional desperation is palpable throughout much of the film. Her guilt over food tasting good again, her fierce determination to hang on to Bailey’s clothes because their existence means her sister could feasibly still come back and wear them, are painfully realistic gut punches.
Unfortunately, the young men around her don’t get quite the same level of depth. Love triangles are a much-maligned staple of contemporary young adult fiction, though The Sky Is Everywhere’s is slightly different from what you might expect. Here, Lennie is torn between dreamy new boy Joe Fontaine (Jacques Colimon) and her dead sister’s boyfriend Toby (Pico Alexander). But while the film does a serviceable job of establishing Joe as a sort of Manic Pixie Dream Boy ideal whose sole purpose is essentially to bring Lennie back to herself, it doesn’t do quite as well by Toby, or his relationship with Lennie.
In Nelson’s book, the text is much more clear that Lennie and Toby’s relationship really is all about Bailey—that part of the reason they repeatedly seek each other out is that being together allows them to somehow reconnect with their lost loved one. It’s deeply unhealthy, obviously, but it’s fairly clear from the jump that Toby’s never a real option for Lennie or a good choice for her future. In the film, the reasons for their relationship are messier, and it’s less clear that Lennie herself is aware of the toxic nature of their bond.
Part of that is because although we see—and at times, even overhear—Lennie writing bits of poetry and prose on random surfaces and leaving scraps of paper containing her thoughts all over town, the movie can’t recreate the impact of actually reading her words for ourselves on the page. And this creates a bit of necessary distance between us and the film’s protagonist that isn’t present in the book, where it’s easier to understand her choices and her emotional arc. On screen, Lennie is more distant from us, and while the medium likely makes that necessary, it can sometimes leave her character feeling flat and reactionary.
Yet, director Josephine Decker manages to find unexpected and beautiful ways to visually represent Lennie’s emotional state. The Sky Is Everywhere is full of strange and surprising images that include everything from over-the-top riots of color to claustrophobic, almost horror-like darkness. From the faceless rose-people who rise from the ground to form a human-plant hybrid wreath around Lennie and Joe during an important moment to the impromptu dance sequence that breaks out as Lennie reminisces about her sister’s love of music to the forest that suddenly starts raining broken furniture, Baker makes a ton of interesting choices that add color and depth to an otherwise fairly simple and straightforward story. The same can generally be said of The Sky Is Everywhere itself, which puts a fresh spin on an age-old topic and brings a much-loved book to life.
Director: Josephine Decker
Writer: Jandy Nelson
Stars: Grace Kaufman, Pico Alexander, Jacques Colimon, Cherry Jones, Jason Segal
Release Date: February 11, 2022 (Apple TV+)
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.