Based on the best-selling young adult novel of the same name by Nicola Yoon, Everything, Everything opens on the day of Madeline “Maddy” Whittier’s (Amandla Stendberg) 18th birthday. Maddy suffers from severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID). As a result, her mother, who is also conveniently her doctor, keeps her inside their very sterile home at all times. There are many luxuries within Maddy’s home: machines to irradiate her clothing and other articles brought in from outside, a Pilates reformer for her to exercise, a state-of-the-art laptop which she uses to blog and take online classes, a beautiful sunroom which features several textures that one would normally find outdoors, and a host of medical equipment which her mother uses to run daily physical exams on her.
Maddy also has a nurse, Carla (Ana de la Regeura), who stays with her during the day while her mother is at work. Carla and her daughter, Rosa (Danube R. Hermosillo), are the only people outside of her home who really even know that Maddy exists. Maddy’s interactions with Carla, Rosa, and her mother are our first hints that something isn’t right. Everyone washes and sterilizes their hands prior to interacting with Maddy, but their clothes, particularly her mother and Rosa’s clothes, which have been on their bodies and near the germs of other people, aren’t taken off, washed, and irradiated.
Maddy’s mother, Pauline (Anika Noni Rose) is justifiably over-protective of her seemingly fragile daughter, whose SCID means that she is just one major germ away from death. According to Pauline, she discovered the cause of why Maddy was always sick when Maddy was around 2 years old, shortly after the death of her husband and son. From that point on, Maddy has lived on the inside looking out, engaging in many hobbies and finding nonphysical ways to interact with people, but not engaging with them beyond the four walls of her home. Despite the confinement, Maddy is content. When she meets Olly (Nick Robinson), everything changes.
There is an immediate interest and attraction between Maddy and Olly but her warden, I mean mother, makes it clear that he and any of his potential germs are not welcome into their home, which prompts the resourceful Olly (whose bedroom window faces Maddy’s) to begin communicating with his shut-in neighbour first via signs, then through texts, and eventually emails and phone calls. Learning about Maddy’s SCID doesn’t scare Olly away, and if anything, the two grow closer. So close that Maddy convinces her nurse to let Olly into the house so that they can finally meet in person.
This is where, for dramatic effect, I’m sure, the film ventures into the unrealistic. No medical professional would risk their livelihood and endanger a young woman’s life in order to play matchmaker. No matter how clean Olly might be, not only is he not given a disinfecting bathe prior to these meetings, but his germs are wholly unfamiliar to Maddy’s immune system. The next clue that things simply don’t add up is that, upon their second meeting, Maddy and Olly share a very long, deep kiss… and she’s absolutely fine afterwards.
If you haven’t already guessed it, Maddy isn’t really sick at all. Both Yoon, and this book came under heavy criticism for using an invisible illness (in this case, SCID), as a prop to promote a book. What’s unforgivable, in my eyes, is Yoon’s very poor understanding of SCID as an illness. She is exploiting the illness as one which her protagonist suffers from, but couldn’t be bothered to learn what it means to actually live with SCID. Futhermore, the very premise of Everything, Everything, one hinged on the belief that people with severe disabilities are “not really living” is incredibly hurtful to those living with visible and invisible illnesses alike. In Maddy’s particular case, she has hobbies, interests, and talents. She is living. Suggesting that the lives of indivduals who can’t leave their homes are not “real” or “worthy” is flat-out wrong. These issues, and only these issues, as vast as they are, were the only issues I found to be problematic.
But because of the clues I’ve mentioned, and at least half a dozen more alluded to in both the book and the film, I am willing to give Yoon a pass in giving us a protagonist who isn’t really ill, even if it does promote the very tired and false “Love heals all” rhetoric, where although the disease is central to the plot, it’s gone when the love interests are ready to live happily-ever-after. I understand why it was vital to the plot that the audience believe that Maddy had SCID. We needed to believe that in order to understand the depth of Pauline’s illness, namely a very aggressive form of Munchausen syndrome. Like in Bubble Boy and The Boy in the Plastic Bubble before it, Everything, Everything exploits SCID in order to present a protagonist who isn’t ill, but suffering Munchausen’s by proxy as the result of an overbearing, severely mentally ill parent.
Though Olly comes from an abusive home, where his father routinely physically abuses both he and his mother, it can be argued that Pauline’s abuse of Maddy is a far greater crime. For 16 years, this woman found an elaborate way to keep Maddy a prisoner in her own home, with the victim being none the wiser. While Pauline is presented as nurturing and compassionate, albeit neurotic and disciplined, she is actually a much more toxic person than Olly’s father could ever hope to be. Why? She pretends to care, and she has herself convinced that she actually loves her daughter as a person, and not just an favoured object to be protected.
One scene in particular, after Maddy thoughtlessly leaves the house to check on Olly, and is having a heart-to-heart conversation with her mother about her feelings for him, displays a Pauline who says and does all of the right things, is gentle and firm where she needs to be, then the next day, proceeds to crush her daughter’s spirit in an effort to destroy her feelings for Olly. In doing so, as well as in firing Carla, Pauline further isolates her daughter, and when we later learn that Maddy’s “illness” is just a ruse she’s cooked up in order to retain control of what little family she has left, Pauline is exposed for what she is: a very ill, and highly manipulative woman.
Heavily problematic premise aside, Everything, Everything had a lot of redemption in other areas. One of these was the interpersonal relationships between all of the main and supporting cast. Maddy and Pauline: the “sick” child and the “selfless” mother who only wants to keep her safe. Pauline and Carla: the doctor and nurse who have teamed up to make Maddy’s life as easy and safe as possible. Olly and his sister Kayra (Sabrina Carpenter): two siblings who have become unusually close as a result of surviving abuse. But one of the best relationship portrayals in this film was Maddy and Olly. Their conversations, body language, and flirtations are all very young love. Nothing is ever forced or beyond their age bracket. As the relationship progresses, we don’t see a teen romance brimming with gossip, abuse, or control, either, but a very healthy relationship grounded in mutual admiration and respect. Maddy and Olly both prioritize the other’s feelings and well-being over their own desires.
If nothing else, Everything, Everything gets right what so many teen romances get wrong. Love isn’t the guy who stalks, harasses, or becomes obsessed with you. Love isn’t the guy who pressures you into sex, or anything else, before you’re ready. Love knows how to hold on, and respects the other party’s wishes when they want to let go. Beyond that, Stenberg and Robinson have an incredible chemistry, and their performances were only outdone by Rose’s portrayal of Pauline, a woman so mentally ill that she managed to take several lives into the black hole of her own delusion.
When it comes to both romance and family dysfunctional, Everything, Everything hits every nail on the head. For me, this film had two great take-aways. The first is that emotional and social abuse can often have a far more damaging and lasting impact than physical, and that the monster you don’t know is lurking is more dangerous than the enemy you know. The second is that it is possible for young people to have healthy romantic and sexual relationships. It is possible fore young people to have healthy communication and clear expectations and boundaries. Young love doesn’t need “drama” in order to be real. Regardless of what they were each going through, Maddy and Olly never brought these external stressors into the relationship, or ever sought to use their own pain to hurt the other.
Despite not having everything together, Everything, Everything was poignant, very well-cast, featured excellent cinematography, and had both a stellar soundtrack and amazingly heartfelt score which at least gave the audience a few bandages for the moments when the film rubbed us raw.
I give this one 3.75 stars.