All Together Now (2020)
This film seemingly has two different descriptions on Netflix. On mobile, the synopsis reads: "An optimistic, talented teen clings to a huge secret: She's homeless and living on a bus. When tragedy strikes, can she learn to accept a helping hand?"
WHAT!? "When tragedy strikes"? What do you mean? She's a homeless teenager living on a bus! Tragedy has already struck!
Don't despair though, loyal Inconceivable! Reviews readers! If you aren't keen on tragedies about young adults living on buses, just watch All Together Now on your laptop. It's a totally different film, with the blurb reading, "A total rock star at school and work, she seems to have it all together. But sometimes even solo acts need a little backup."
Pictured: The mobile version of All Together Now, versus the laptop version.
See! Totally different movie. It's like watching Malcom and Donalbain being kicked out of Scotland in Macbeth, or instead, watching Oberon asking Puck to help him out with some fairy business in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
I hear Netflix is hiring new blurb authors soon...
Before I go any further, I will tell you which blurb is more relevant...the answer is honestly both. The difference is, the first blurb discusses the film's plot, whilst the second basically spoon-feeds audiences the central theme.
In more detail, All Together Now follows the series of unfortunate events that plague central protagonist, Amber Appleton (Auli'i Cravalho). The film opens by essentially establishing what a good person she is. She teaches a "pay what you can" ESL class, she washes dishes at a doughnut shop, she works at a retirement home on weekends, and delivers free doughnuts to the elderly every morning on the way to school. But bad things happen to good people, and Amber is homeless.
After a long day of schoolwork, teaching, working and volunteering, Amber returns to said bus and looks for houses in the newspaper as she gently hums to herself, a song that (according to the sheet music) is called, Feels Like Home... Yes Netflix, we understand. She is definitely homeless.
It's important to note that the director/writer of this film, has worked incredibly hard to communicate Amber's positive attitude in the first twenty minutes or so. Obviously, she's a hard worker, but she also has an incredible amount of optimism and energy for a teenager, living in dire circumstances. After falling asleep at around midnight, and sleeping rough on a bus, Amber wakes up before sunrise, is chirpy as anything, says a warm good-bye to her Mum, puts her dog in her backpack, and cycles off into the darkness of night/early, early morning. I get it. They are trying to show how her character and personality changes as things progressively get worse. However, the way that she is established at the start, is so incredibly perfect, it's almost unbelievable. It isn't until the end, when the central theme is really being pushed, that you can understand and kind of accept the extreme way in which Amber's character has been written.
Anyway, upon arriving at school, we get a lot of exposition about a STOLEN TUBA! Oh my goodness, someone stole the school tuba. Did you guys know that the marching band has played all year without it? Apparently it was stolen during the summer break! The tuba player looks weird without it. And sad. Actually they've played half the football season without it. Actually it's a sousaphone. The marching band will be automatically disqualified from the state championships if they don't have a tuba! (Is this actually a rule? U.S. readers, please confirm). Sousaphone's are worth a lot on the dark web. They should just borrow or rent one. NO! Let's make the tuba this year's cause for the school variety show.
Now, you have to know that after all of this dialogue about an allegedly stolen tuba, all I could think in my head was: there is no way that the finale variety show, in this film, will be about raising money for a musical instrument, for a random extra in the marching band. No way. Surely, you agree? In short, this exposition, not convincing. However, I suppose it's just another example of the fact that no cause is too small or insignificant for Amber Appleton!
Anyway, I'm going to tell you all about the tragedy (in the moble version of the film) that strikes. You may wish to skip this paragraph, as it will contain SPOILERS! The bus depot people discover that Amber and her mum are sleeping on a bus, and evict them. In addition to this Mum loses her job as a bus driver...BUT THIS IS NOT THE TRAGEDY. Mum moves in with her ex-boyfriend (who has hit her in the past) and begins drinking alcohol again...BUT THIS IS NOT THE TRAGEDY. Amber decides not to move in with this person, and instead chooses to sleep on a park bench...BUT THIS IS NOT THE TRAGEDY. During her first night on the park bench, Amber's backpack is stolen. The backpack contained all of her money, schoolbooks and worldly possessions (apart from her dog)...BUT THIS IS NOT THE TRAGEDY. Turns out Amber's dad died from a sudden heart condition, when she was twelve...BUT THIS IS NOT THE TRAGEDY. During History class, the principal enters and says, "Amber, bring your things," even though Amber has no things anymore...BUT THIS IS NOT THE TRAGEDY. Amber's mum dies! BUT THIS IS NOT THE TRAGEDY. On the day of Amber's audition, for her dream college, she misses her flight and therefore her audition...BUT THIS IS NOT THE TRAGEDY. Turns out her dog has a might-be-cancerous mass on his spleen. This is the tragedy guys....I think? This is the last straw for Amber. She drops out of school, and picks up more shifts at the doughnut shop and the retirement home, in an effort to raise money for Bobby Big Boy...if only the school variety show hadn't already committed to raising all of that money for a sousaphone...
This is the moment when we see a big shift in Amber. She begins to shut people out. She insists on abandoning her schoolwork and her dreams to go to college, in an effort to raise the $8000 required to save Bobby Big Boy. It's established fairly early on that Amber is uncomfortable accepting help. The parent of one of her friends, a woman that she is quite close to, buys her a little make-up bag as a gift, and Amber refuses it. So it isn't out of character for her to refuse help from people at a time of crisis. As an audience member, it's hard not to learn from this moment, and to accept the central message that it's okay to ask for help when you need it.
There is a lot of tragedy in this film. That's not to say that Amber's story isn't one that could really happen, or that has really happened to someone. However, by creating a protagonist with such an unbreakable, upbeat personality, someone who doesn't even grumble at the concept of cycling to school in the dark, after four hours of sleep on a bus, they've kind of caused this film to fall short of what it could be. It feels sugarcoated. It almost undermines the experiences of those who have gone through difficulty. Perhaps that's what the teenage target audience needs? Maybe they need the overarching message more than the realistic story that this film could offer. Maybe the heartfelt and feel-good elements of this film, are well-received by the majority (critics on Rotten Tomatoes seem to really appreciate it). I have to say though, I personally didn't enjoy it. The contrast of Amber's unrelenting positivity with the avalanche of tragedy that she manages to mostly brush off, kind of work in opposition to each other. It was because of this that I wasn't able to connect with this film. When you have so much tragedy with little impact, it almost becomes comical? You aren't laughing, but you're sitting there watching and asking "Are you serious"? Like I said, there are plenty of people who've experienced the same as Amber, and their stories deserve to be told, but how many would actually behave like Amber in these circumstances? And more importantly, how many would be almost insulted by the way that their experiences are downplayed in this film?
To make All Together Now more likable for me, there either needed to be way less tragedy. (Essentially, either start the film at a later point, or focus on one of the main tragedies and delete the rest). Or they needed to keep all of the tragedy, but make a more believable protagonist. I'm a crier. I cry when I'm happy, I cry when I'm sad, I cry when I laugh. I didn't cry during this film. When Amber's mum died, my first thought was, "Of course she did"...There's something wrong with that...and I'm hoping the problem isn't me...
This isn't a bad film. It's well put together and has some great moments. Other reviewers seemingly found it to be an enjoyable experience, and it's averaging 75 per cent on the tomatometer currently. I wouldn't recommend this one though. For me, the events and the characterisation, clash awkwardly. This undermines the protagonist's experiences and makes for more of a soap opera than anything. You could say that it is a heartfelt teen drama, but you could also say that there are better heartfelt teen dramas available.