“Exuberant” is not the first word that comes to mind when one thinks of a Josephine Decker-helmed project. The indie director’s films — from her prickly debut feature Butter on the Latch to the haunting Madeline’s Madeline — reveal a vested interest in the capricious, muddled terrain of the human mind. They deal in the surreal and the uncanny, observing the line between fantasy and reality. They are rendered in an intimate style, although her protagonists — usually women — are shifty, coy and opaque. Decker is not in the business of cheerfulness.
Yet her latest film, The Sky Is Everywhere, produced by A24 and Apple TV+, might make one wonder: Why not? Adapted from Jandy Nelson’s YA novel of the same name, it’s a satisfying exercise in ebullience. Decker, with the help of cinematographer Ava Berkofsky and a cast of formidable performers, digs into the crevices of a grieving mind. But she brings a light touch to the excavation, and that counterintuitive approach injects old queries with new life. What does grief do to the body and the spirit? How does it contort the past and alter the present? The answers to these questions help the director build an affecting portrait of a young woman stumbling toward self-discovery.
The Sky Is Everywhere
A distinctively exuberant portrait of grief.
Seventeen-year-old Lennie Walker (Grace Kaufman) initially bears little resemblance to Decker’s usual protagonists. The Northern California teenager spends the weeks and months after her older sister Bailey’s (Havana Rose Liu) death re-reading Wuthering Heights and penning sentimental notes in the forest behind her home. Surrounded by towering redwood trees, Lennie scribbles her devastating realizations about life — “Last summer, I learned that the most terrible thing you can imagine can happen at any time,” reads one — and reflects on past conversations with her sister.
In the hands of a less confident director the teen’s romanticism would risk feeling contrived, but Decker cleverly uses Lennie’s confessions to experiment with conjuring the emotional incongruities of mourning. Boredom begets amusement; anguished tears follow uncontrolled fits of laughter; sexual desire lives alongside horror. Lennie experiences and expresses these things indiscriminately, and Decker conveys these moments with a dreamy visual language and whimsical sounds. Musical notes float through the school halls as Lennie imagines a relationship with the guitar-strumming new kid, Joe Fontaine (Jacques Colimon). Bailey’s possessions — clothes and trinkets — rain from the sky as Lennie, overwhelmed by sadness, roams the woods.
Grief has hollowed out Lennie’s senses, and like a newborn she must intuit her way back to stability and safety. At first, refuge comes in the form of Bailey’s boyfriend, Toby Shaw (Pico Alexander), a mild-mannered man of few words. He and Lennie understand the scope of each other’s sadness, the cavernous space left by Bailey’s death.
But then Joe saunters into Lennie’s life, desperate to get to know her. He, who possesses a unique understanding of why she feels she can no longer play her clarinet, offers a vision of a more optimistic future. Suddenly, the teen finds herself tangled in a complicated love triangle, confused about her feelings and alone in her decision-making.
But Lennie is not alone. Burrowed in their own experiences of sorrow are Lennie’s eccentric, green-thumbed grandmother, Fiona (a brilliant Cherry Jones), and her goofy, stoner uncle, Big (the reliably funny Jason Segel). They attempt to pull the teen out of her isolation with invitations to tea, walks and beach days. Her best friend Sarah (the utterly delightful Ji-young Yoo) texts, calls and emails to no avail; Lennie, subsumed by her own sadness, ignores these offers. Decker expresses Lennie’s grief through memories of Bailey, captured in golden flashbacks of the sisters’ forest excursions and secrets whispered in the darkness of their shared room.
Despite its downbeat subject matter, The Sky Is Everywhere is, at its core, optimistic; without being overly sentimental, Nelson’s screenplay sees grieving as an opportunity for growth. As Lennie learns more about her own emotions, and falls in love, she comes to rely less on daydreams to get her through her days. Decker and Berkofsky subtly shift the film’s visuals to align with the protagonist’s maturation: Lennie’s reality adopts the same brilliant hue as her earlier fantasies.
Kaufman capably embodies Lennie’s journey; her performance, which grows more sure-footed as the film proceeds, grows on you. One of Decker’s skills as a director is her focus on body language, and Kaufman suggests her character’s moods — especially joy — via triumphant, dramatic movements.
Lennie’s is not the only growth rippling beneath the surface of The Sky Is Everywhere. Although the film contains elements of Decker’s signature directorial style, it also reflects her attempts to evolve on a slightly different path. She’s having fun, and it shows.