In recent years, there has been a barrage of unique voices that have transcended the typical young adult coming-of-age film, offering significant insights of teens thrown into the deep end of adulthood. The Fault in our Stars showed the devastating relationship between two cancer patients, while Perks of Being a Wallflower followed a freshman who had gone through significant trauma, which reignites as he pursues a relationship with an older student. We then had a film like Netflix's The Half of it in which a young woman falls in love with her best friend's crush and unwittingly finds herself romanticizing a question that she dared not ask, and it felt monumental. These films challenged the simplicity of young adult films, which saw teens as hard-partying and entitled beings who only have sex on their minds.
Now we have the heartbreaking yet adoring under-the-radar Netflix film All Together Now, which follows a young woman in high school who spends her nights sleeping on a bus with her mum after losing their home, yet gives everyone around her all the love she can muster. Anyone who has watched director Brett Haley's films (Hearts Beat Loud) knows that he centers around the family being separated and finding each other again. All Together Now sees another young adult separated from common comforts and adds burdensome weight on her shoulders, which are already heavy with unintentional responsibility. It stands apart with its compassion, tender storytelling, and, most importantly, its idea of what family means.
The film is based on Matthew Quick's novel, with Brett Haley and Marc Basch also contributing to the screenplay. We meet Amber Appleton (Auli'i Cravalho from Moana fame) as she optimistically engages with the world around her. Amber leads a singing group of senior Korean women through an upbeat swing, works at a home for the elderly, spreading smiles to even the coldest of hearts like the terse Joan (Carol Burnett), and has a part-time job at a donut shop. She is also a high school student, and when she realizes the school's marching band is missing a tuba, she organizes a variety show to raise money to complete the orchestra. In short, she does everything for everyone and nothing for herself. You wouldn't believe this young woman would go home at night to sleep on a school bus because her mother was evicted. But this won't keep Amber down. She might be an adult well beyond her years, but she knows her mum is trying her best.
When Amber gets an audition to follow her dreams of becoming a vocalist for Carnegie Mellon University, it becomes clear where her ambitions lie. This is the school her father went to, and her excitement leaves her frozen in her seat. But she still goes about her every day: She wakes each weekday morning, cooking breakfast for her best friend Ricky (Anthony Jacques) and rides with him in a van to school with the other theater students, including her crush Ty (Rhenzy Feliz). When she calculates a budget to get to the audition, the dream is further out of reach than what might be possible.
What unfolds is a heartbreaking story of Amber's need to do good, be good, and ask for very little return. As her mother, the excellent Justina Machado (Yes, please give her more roles!), struggles to make ends meet and decides to return to her abusive ex-boyfriend, Amber struggles to find her way out of the hole life has put her in. Auli'i is nothing short of a revelation, captivating with her beautiful singing voice while also carrying the film under the weight of Amber's struggles. The story unfolds delicately, allowing us time with each character as they try to help Amber. The compassionate storytelling is something Haley has proven himself to be capable of, and All Together Now is as beautifully layered as his other films.
Amber and Ty escape to his family's vacation home in the middle of the film, which contrasts to Amber's home on a bus. They decide to practice her audition piece, a song that her father wrote for her mother, called 'Feels Like Home.' When Amber sings, the weight she has been holding that she doesn't share with anyone else is released with the chorus's crescendo. She loses herself in the chords and unleashes a beautiful melody, singing with profound fervor that she wants to know what feels like home. It's a question I have asked myself many times before, but life doesn't have simple answers. Home can be all around us, particularly when we lose sight of how we got to where we are today, and we just have to recognise the warmth and safety of a home in its many forms.
Now available to stream on Netflix