Are other countries as obsessed with watching attractive teenagers face their mortality, or is it a uniquely American thing?
Perhaps the looming specter of health care reform has led to the popularity of projects such as “The Fault in Our Stars” or “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” The latest in the “sick flick” trend is “Everything, Everything,” which presents a trickier twist on the genre before eventually succumbing to its own narrative demise.
Amandla Stenberg (aka Rue from “The Hunger Games”) plays Maddy, an 18-year-old who hasn’t left her Los Angeles home in 17 years.
“My immune system sucks,” she explains.
Her susceptibility to germs has made Maddy a prisoner of her own tastefully decorated residence, able to experience the outdoors only through hermetically sealed glass. She passes the days posting book reviews and taking architecture classes online, with physical contact reduced to her doctor-mother (Anika Noni Rose) and nurse (Ana de la Reguera).
Then she spots new neighbors moving in.
She locks eyes with fellow teen Olly (Nick Robinson from “Jurassic World”), and thus begins their flirtation. Although the “bad boy” Olly has unrestricted rein to go where he pleases — which apparently does not include a barber shop — the couple can’t really hook up in the standard way. As their text-heavy relationship blossoms, so does Maddy’s desire to break free of her confines.
It’s in these early scenes where “Everything, Everything” works. Olly is kind of a smarmy dork, but it’s hard not to get caught up in Maddy and her limited world. As Olly says, she’s “funny, smart and beautiful … in that order.”
Director Stella Meghie stages their interactions with appealing flourishes, such as dramatizing text conversations as if the pair were sitting across from each other at a diner. Or by subtitling their future in-person chats with what they’re thinking rather than what they’re saying.
Based on the book by Nicola Yoon and adapted by J. Mills Goodloe, the film takes its title from the one-sentence spoiler reviews that Maddy posts to a review blog. (For example, she summarizes “The Invisible Man” as “You don’t exist if no one can see you.”) Her favorite book is “The Little Prince,” which she condenses to “Love is everything. Everything.”
These nice offhand moments sprinkled throughout make the material engaging. But midway, the story loses its appeal.
Maddy steps outdoors to breathe in the fresh air, sunshine and loud bird chirping, yet this key scene somehow lacks magic. Or sincerity. It’s the first of many instances when the viewer starts to second guess what’s on the screen.
Olly, all shaggy and dressed in black, doesn’t seem to have a life outside of Maddy. What does he do all day, besides finding methods to amuse her? Is he in school? Does he have a job? There’s a fine line between being boyishly charming and cryptically idiotic, so it’s hard not to assume the latter when he spouts lines such as, “I respect the ocean” and “Thinking is overrated.”
This ultimately is partnered with a reveal that veers into M. Night Shyamalan territory, a tonal misstep.
But here’s the real problem: Even with the context of Maddy’s medical situation, her relationship with Olly becomes conventional.
They’re interesting as a romantic couple when a glass barrier separates them. Without it, these teens are just as dull as any others.
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief sensuality.