What separates the good teen romances based on young adult novels from the soppy, ridiculous ones? Emotional conviction, mostly, and committed performances. “Everything, Everything” is mostly one of the good ones, even if it has everything (everything) that makes these movies head south for everyone (everyone) but the target audience of teenage girls.
There’s the gimmick: Heroine Maddy Whittier (Amandla Stenberg) is a Bubble Girl, locked in her germ-free house for her entire 18-year-old life because of a deadly immune deficiency. There’s the Sigh Guy: Olly Bright (Nick Robinson), sweet and misunderstood and just moved in across the way from Maddy’s bedroom window.
There’s the adult who Just Doesn’t Get It: Anika Noni Rose as Maddy’s mother, Pauline, a widowed doctor who’d do anything to protect her baby from microbes and hormones and hot boys next door. There’s an American Top 40-ready soundtrack and trite moonstruck dialogue (some of it literally from the movie “Moonstruck,” which Maddy watches religiously) and an already-tenuous realism that gets left in the dust as the plot gets sillier and more baroque. (A note to the core demographic: Credit cards don’t actually work the way they do in this movie. You have to pay the bills.)
What keeps “Everything, Everything” on the right side of the line, though, is its emotional realism: The movie reminds you of what it’s like to fall in love for the first time, in all its glory and embarrassment. Credit goes to Robinson and especially Stenberg, who never condescend to their characters and whose courtship, initially on either side of a pane of glass, feels awkward and privileged in the right balance.
Credit, too, goes to director Stella Meghie, who rises from her 2016 debut, the self-penned indie “Jean of the Joneses,” to ace her first shot at the relative big time. She keeps the tone delicate and winsome and funny and sexy, and when the story line turns dumb in the final 30 minutes — it kind of has to — she keeps a straight face like a professional and gets everyone over the finish line unharmed. Meghie also observes the story’s commitment to mixed-race characters and mixed-race romance without ever commenting on it, much as Nicola Yoon’s book did.
That’s one reason why “Everything, Everything” stands a chance at becoming a niche “The Notebook” for its mini-generation of adolescent girls: It’s a fantasy built on unspoken hopes and feelings that are present-tense and real, with a lead actress who’s on the verge of becoming a pop culture force. Stenberg was Rue in “The Hunger Games” and is a figure of young, vocal, progressive strength on social media; she’s already an aspirational personality to a lot of girls who will see this movie. Yet she stays true to her character, to Maddy’s unworldliness and growing maturity, and the performance is honest about young lust, too, without rubbing it in your face.
On the other hand, this is one of those movies that says actual sex can make you sick and that mother is a girl’s best friend until she’s really, really not. And its suggestion that airplane travel is a fine idea for people with auto-immune disorders is an interesting shade of bonkers. But movies like this are where the “women’s pictures” of Hollywood’s classic era have gone to, among other places, with their insistence that what happens within a conflicted female protagonist is of far greater urgency and drama than an outer world that pays her little heed. The title refers not to what’s out there but everything (everything) inside Maddy’s head and heart, desperate to burst out and be seen.
Directed by Stella Meghie. Written by J. Miles Goodloe, based on the novel by Nicola Yoon. Starring Amandla Stenberg, Nick Robinson, Anika Noni Rose. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 96 minutes. PG-13 (thematic elements and brief sensuality).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.