I was first introduced to Josephine Decker when in 2018, I went to the local arthouse theatre to see a movie called Madeline’s Madeline I hadn’t heard much about other than that it was good. I was then blind-sided by its fractured style; unsparing cuts, blaring score, suffocating close-ups, and jarring, mid-shot changes in focus. It’s all a representation of how the main character, a troubled teenager played by Helena Howard, makes it through the day, and then the plot is about an artist (Molly Parker) perhaps wrongfully assuming that she can dramatize Howard’s life in a piece of art. It raises a lot of productive, probing questions about its own existence but also succeeds as just a stylish character drama, with brilliant performances by Howard, Parker, and especially Miranda July as Howard’s hostile mother. It blew me away, and I marked Decker as a director to look out for. Two years later came her follow-up, the Shirley Jackson anti-biopic Shirley. It’s more or less the Madeline’s Madeline style applied to a Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf riff, with Elisabeth Moss as Jackson and Michael Stuhlbarg as her cackling professor husband. If it lacked the surprise of Madeline‘s, that doesn’t matter with such great actors and a director with such a distinct and lacerating visual style. By the time Shirley came out, Decker was already attached to direct The Sky is Everywhere, an adaptation of the same-named YA novel written by the book’s author Jandy Nelson. It shot quietly in late 2020 and arrives now as part of the Apple/A24 partnership that’s gotten us very good movies like Tragedy of Macbeth and On the Rocks. What little I’d heard about Sky is Everywhere was that it was a minor work, but that same complaint was registered wrongly against both Macbeth and Rocks, so I had some hope that this deal was just for secretly strong “minor” auteur works. But The Sky is Everywhere is a different, rarer kind of auteur work. It’s not a for-hire work even though everything about it would suggest it is; Decker told IndieWire she sought out this material specifically to process the grief and depression she experienced during the making of Shirley. There was no meddling from the studios or producers (the main producer, Denise Di Novi, previously supported another indie luminary crossing over to family movies by producing Gerwig’s Little Women). It’s distinguished by Decker’s usual bold stylistic flourishes, presenting the world as it feels rather than as it is. It’s incredibly sincere, wanting nothing more to provide a bit of comfort for those who’ve recently lost a loved one. And it’s so egregiously awful in every respect that none of that earns it any points. Eat your hearts out Safdie brothers, Decker is now the first post-mumblecore filmmaker to make her own Francis Ford Coppola’s Jack.
There is rarely a moment in The Sky is Everywhere where I don’t get what Decker saw in and brought to this material. It makes a lot of sense why she’d gravitate towards a YA adaptation, it’s easy to apply the frantic harshness of her style to the everyday problems of being a teenager because those problems feel very scary at that age. And this specific YA adaptation offers a lot of connections to some of her ongoing pet themes. It’s another drama about the inner life of a troubled female artist, here it’s high-school clarinetist Lennie (Grace Alexander) whose sister’s sudden death has left her wounded and defensive, not even able to play her clarinet. She tries for love with both cute guitarist Joe (Jacques Colimon) and her sister’s former boyfriend Toby (Pico Alexander), but mostly she lashes out in confusion at her friends and family, including her grandmother (Cherry Jones) and uncle (Jason Segel) who are grieving as much as she is. It’s all emotional turmoil tailor-made for Decker’s aggressive style, and she certainly delivers on aggressiveness. However, Sky is Everywhere is aggressive mostly in very different ways than Decker’s last two, because Decker isn’t interested in bruising the viewer with her images this time around. So instead she makes them cartoonishly welcoming, dialing up the colors of everything to But I’m a Cheerleader levels of eye-searing. I was lucky(?) enough to see this in a theater and its effect, where even the digital noise seems to sparkle, is something to behold on a big screen. It is a very pretty movie because bright colors are inherently very pretty to look at, and Decker has assembled a crack design team to render those colors (costume designer Christopher Peterson worked on The Irishman and both Magic Mikes; production designer Grace Yun worked on First Reformed and Hereditary). But rather than just stick with simple visual pleasures, Decker adds on visual touches so cloying and quirky they seem on-loan from Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, like text messages that appear on-screen in a faux-handwritten font or boner jokes soundtracked with literal boi-oi-oing noises or Gap commercial-tier musical numbers (not even the good Gap commercials either!). Decker can do whimsy and fantasy, with her excellent short “Me the Terrible” (on Criterion Channel to watch instead of this) creating a elaborate child’s-eye-view of Depression-era New York. Hell, she can do dance sequences, as anyone who’s seen the end of Madeline’s Madeline can attest. But here she chooses the wrong tone to match to her usual strengths and those strengths suddenly become weaknesses. There can be a surprisingly thin line between portraying the chaos of a cluttered, nervous mind and celebrating Old Navy’s collection of back-to-school clothing.
You want to write this off as a completely failed experiment, but every once in awhile you’ll get a little moment that reminds you you’re watching a real talent. A Jacques Demy-aping dance number transitions into the real world without a cut when an extra drops his ice cream cone. Lennie’s climactic heartfelt speech is shot so close to her face that you can barely see her lips as she speaks it. Decker even elevates an idea as overused as “the characters are lifted off the ground as they’re joined in song” by having the passersby in the scene react visibly but subtly to the fantasy like it’s an everyday charming romantic gesture. No matter how hard you may try, you can’t fully discredit what she’s trying here, which makes the rest of this movie all the more maddening.
Sky is Everywhere is, above all else, about the experience of being the most annoying person in the world and suffering a tragic loss. I tried as hard as I can to make allowances for the main character’s behavior considering that she is going through severe depression, but impressively the movie overcomes the inherent empathy we have for this character by making her such a melodramatic, selfish asshole to everyone she meets. I have not seen Grace Alexander in anything before, but I can’t imagine an actor making a worse first impression on me than this, a performance so overstudied and to-the-cheap-seats it belongs on a high school theatre stage. The film’s style is already obnoxious enough on its own, but when tailored to this performance and character it becomes unbearable, like reading the intimate diary of the worst person you knew in high school. I don’t want to put all the blame on Alexander, because I don’t know what even a good actor could do with dialogue this ripe. Every other word out of Lennie’s mouth has the word “grief” somewhere in it, she thinks and speaks exclusively in platitudes and often screams or weeps them out. She especially loves describing her life in terms of Wuthering Heights, with “Heathcliff and Cathy” being said more often than in the song but never in a specific enough way to register as anything but cheap shorthand for a great romance. She is cheap shorthand personified, happily spelling out the movie’s obvious themes for the people not paying any attention. It’s not enough that at her lowest point she desperately sniffs her sister’s former clothing, she also screams “They just smell like me now!” while she does it.
Whatever this does retain from Decker’s past two films, it sure doesn’t carry over her strength with actors. The two potential boyfriends for Lennie are as bland as she is insufferable, Toby is a generic brooder while Joe is a dope with no personality besides his toothy smile; this is a serious problem when the third act is a series of attempts by Lennie to win Joe back. Meanwhile, Lennie’s best friend Sarah is maybe even more insufferable than she is, the kind of person who wears crop-tops emblazoned with Weird Al in the “All About the Pentiums” video and will launch into marble-mouthed rants about the “white male literary canon” at the drop of a hat. The usually reliable Cherry Jones takes the Susan Sarandon part of the kooky, pot-smoking grandma and does nothing with it besides occasionally playing really bitter or near-catatonic. Jason Segel fares best of anyone mostly by virtue of being in this very little. Mostly his job is to act stoned in the background of scenes, which he does adequately without the insufferable mugging that everyone else falls victim to; he even gets the movie’s one intentional laugh when he says he’s stopped smoking pot “since…” and never finishes the sentence. His only showcase scene is when he takes Lennie with him on an experiment to resurrect the bugs he kills on his windshield using the “magic of the pyramids”. This is in the movie solely as yet another thudding metaphor for grief, bringing dead things back to life and yadda yadda. The movie’s so cowardly it doesn’t even show Segel’s attempts to bring the bugs back, it cuts right before he starts.
What do we learn from these obnoxious people and their hot-air balloons (the ending offers the possibility that a character will die by falling off a hot-air balloon and I wish it followed through)? Nothing, really. The dead sister exists solely as an abstraction rather than a former human, a collection of “She’s so crazzzzzzzy! Love her!!!”-tier quirks like eating flowers or singing in her sleep. Flashbacks show Lennie berating her for “changing” but I don’t even really know what she started as let alone what she then changed into. Late reveals that she was pregnant and about to be married when she died add nothing, they just arbitrarily goose up the tragedy of the already very sad event of a sibling’s death. I don’t know if the book is any better at fleshing her out, but here she’s a device, and a very flimsy device to hang the entire emotional core of a movie on.
The actual plotting is all YA cliches not so much subverted as slept-through: a love triangle where one corner is obviously an also-ran, a friend break-up so tossed-off they shouldn’t have bothered, a mean girl in Lennie’s orchestra who disappears for long stretches because the movie doesn’t really need her external conflict (and her face turn at the end is so jarring that even Lennie remarks on it in dialogue). But if the core is as generic as they come, the peripheral details are specific to the point of madness. There are so many inanimate objects given pseudo-magical powers that it’s impossible to keep them straight, especially the two separate plant metaphors; do we need both Cherry Jones’ garden of roses with possible aphrodisiac powers and the dying houseplant that allegedly connects to Lennie’s emotions? It reeks of the source author not being willing to fully kill her darlings in adaptation, giving these items too much prominence to just be easter eggs for fans and not nearly enough attention or explanation to register as anything but puzzling non-sequiturs for anybody who hasn’t read the book. When the movie’s already ten pounds of whimsy in a five-pound bag, making the whimsy impenetrable to 90% of the people viewing it is a good way to alienate the last possible defenders of it.
Before Decker signed on, the rights to The Sky is Everywhere were optioned by Warner Bros. in 2015, and that’s the ideal place and time for this movie. It would probably still be bad, but it would be bad and profitable from riding the post-Fault in Our Stars YA-film boom. More importantly it would be bad but would reach its target audience of young girls much easier than it will collecting dust on Apple TV+ next to the Sofia Coppola movie only I care about (seriously, it’s really good, watch it and not this). The miscalculations began with giving this to A24 and an actual auteur, shifting its audience to people who couldn’t be less receptive to something this saccharine and banal (A24 teens are a very different breed to appeal to than John Green teens). I don’t know if Decker’s distinctiveness makes this better or worse than a polished but anonymous studio version would’ve been, but I do know that this movie’s doing nobody any good by existing in this form. Decker tried her best to meld her style to something joyful and light, and she failed miserably. The lesson is, never try.