Amber Appleton (Auli’i Cravalho) is one of life’s born optimists, a perennially cheerful ray of sunshine dedicated to helping other people. She brings doughnuts to the elderly, helps co-workers get their GEDs, and uses the high school talent show to raise money for charity. She’s so good and so adorable your teeth may grit, just a little.
But every night Amber sneaks into a parked school bus where she and her mother, Becky (Justina Machado), live. Homelessness is her secret, the shadow behind the smile. In “All Together Now,” an adaptation of a Young Adult novel appearing on Netflix, that shadow lengthens and lengthens until Amber’s smile finally disappears. It’s a movie that dramatizes, with some melodrama, what it takes to bring an upbeat young woman down — and then shows, rather incredibly, what it takes to raise her back up again.
“All Together Now” surrounds the heroine with a support system of friends, each with his or her quirk or condition: the wheelchair-bound Chad (Gerald Isaac Waters); his artsy sister Jordan (Taylor Richardson); the pun-happy Ricky (Anthony Jacques), who’s somewhere on the spectrum. Ty (Rhenzy Feliz), who rounds out the crew, is just shy and handsome — i.e., the designated love interest. None of them know that Amber’s mother has spiraled into drink and depression after her husband’s death and that the two have been evicted from their house. At its most insightful, the film shows the shame and the subterfuges — all the tiny lies — that come with hiding homelessness from the rest of the world.
Directed by Brett Haley from the 2010 novel “Sorta Like a Rock Star” by Matthew Quick (“The Silver Linings Playbook”), “All Together Now” is set in Portland, Ore., and thus bears a thematic resemblance to “Leave No Trace,” the 2018 drama about an Iraq War vet and his teenage daughter hiding out in that city’s 5,000-acre Forest Park. The similarities end there. The new film is more beholden to mainstream storytelling conventions of movies and novels for younger readers, even as Amber’s situation turns increasingly perilous. The mother has an abusive boyfriend, but he remains conveniently offscreen. The other adults in Amber’s life range from the finely drawn — Rickey’s mother, Donna (Judy Reyes), a nurse with a sharp and sympathetic eye — to the one-note (Fred Armisen as a gently supportive teacher). Carol Burnett pops up as a humorless codger at an old age home and only the comedy legend’s immense skill keeps a viewer from predicting an eventual thaw.
Yet for all the After School Special glibness and minor believability issues (Amber’s pet Chihuahua never goes to the bathroom; Ty drives a vintage Westphalia that never breaks down; it’s Portland but it never rains), “All Together Now” got to me emotionally, and it may get to you. Much of that goes to Cravalho — she voiced the lead in “Moana” — who has a soulful simplicity that keeps you in Amber’s corner even as the calamities pile up well past the breaking point. Neither should you discount Haley’s directorial touch, even if he’s working with less adult material than in “I’ll See You in My Dreams” (2015), with Blythe Danner, or “The Hero” (2017), with Sam Elliott. Haley’s movies tend to seek out and celebrate the connections that draw unruly people to each other and, by extension, to a wider, more crowded, and more supportive world. The only difference here is that his people are usually unrulier — and rather more interestingly complex.
ALL TOGETHER NOW
Directed by Brett Haley. Written by Haley and Marc Basch, based on the novel by Matthew Quick. Starring Auli’i Cravalho, Justina Machado, Rhenzy Feliz, Carol Burnett, Fred Armisen. Available on Netflix. 92 minutes. PG (thematic content, some language, brief suggestive comments).