All Together Now is a teen movie that skates over the big issues in favour of the conventional 'dream'

All Together Now (M, 133 minutes)

3 stars

After his debut novel, The Silver Linings Playbook, became a New York Times best-seller in 2008 and was turned into a hit movie starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, author Matthew Quick must have been in a pretty good place.

 Justina Machado and Auli'i Cravalho in All Together Now. Picture: Netflix

Justina Machado and Auli'i Cravalho in All Together Now. Picture: Netflix

The success of director David O Russell's film of the book is the stuff of first-time author's dreams.

His next novel appeared two years later. Now that book, Sorta Like a Rock Star, has now been adapted for the screen in this new young adult drama, All Together Now.

It was directed by Brett Haley, and is another original from the giant of the small screen, Netflix.

Like Silver Linings, it features talented actors of all ages, including young Auli'i Cravalho who voiced Moana in the Disney animated feature of the same name. Her singing voice features here too.

All Together Now is about Amber (Cravalho), a talented high school senior who is mired in disadvantage. She is the daughter of Becky (Justina Machado), a single mum who holds a job driving a school bus but cannot keep a roof over their heads.

The things that Amber has going for herself are a happy, optimistic nature and the love and support of a great group of friends. It helps her deal with the fact that she, her mom and pet chihuahua Bobby bed down every night in the school bus that Becky drives by day.

Becky and Amber have an invitation to stay with Becky's boyfriend, Oliver. Problem is that he has drinking issues, as does Becky, and he can be abusive. It's a red alert for Amber that Becky refuses to acknowledge.

With all this going on, Amber manages to keep herself afloat and her home life largely private.

She overlays the pain of it with the fun she finds working in a restaurant, volunteering in old folks' care, and tutoring English as a foreign language to a jolly band of Korean ladies.

Does this all seem improbably cheerful? Perhaps so, but we are in aspirational adult fiction mode here.

The inevitable crunch comes when Amber confides in Donna (Judy Reyes), the mother of a friend, a goodhearted surrogate mother figure, of a decision she has made.

She will not accompany Becky to Oliver's place.

Stinging truths are exchanged in the altercation between the three women in Donna's kitchen. It's a brief moment of truth, I thought, when the film was going somewhere real.

Although Quick contributed to the screenplay for All Together Now, along with director Haley and other writers Marc Basch and Ol Parker, the homelessness that Amber and her mother experience is barely explored.

Why introduce such a big issue into the narrative if it is not going to exert a bit more influence?

Homelessness is of course a major issue in rich developed economies like Australia and the US, and the figures are startling. We hear that the number of young people represented in the stats is growing.

According to official figures from September 2019, over half a million Americans were homeless. A third of them living and sleeping in places not intended for habitation, like parks, abandoned buildings, and cars. Add school buses.

The Carol Burnett character, Joan, adds a bit of saltiness in her cameo as one of the elderly women who Amber cares for. Her sharp observations, like telling Amber her good cheer is "insufferable", offsets some of the treacly narrative tendencies.

The veteran actor's character is also a device that delivers Amber in the end. Another familiar face, Fred Armison, is there too in a minor role.

All Together Now is a glossy production that stands squarely in the aspirational YA fiction mode.

It mentions some big issues in passing, but it basically wants to tell the story of a talented teenager who she never gives up, despite what life throws at her. Nothing wrong with that.

Silver Linings Playbook was good at dissecting relationships, but All Together Now seems to have been dashed off and comes to our screens underwritten.

Auli'i is a lovely charismatic presence who fills the screen but this movie, easy to watch and forgettable, is too slight for her talents. Another one from the great American dream factory.

This story Too slight for the talents within first appeared on The Canberra Times.