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Review: Brett Haley and Auli’i Cravalho bring it ‘All Together Now,’ more than a teen movie

Auli’i Cravalho in the movie "All Together Now."
(Allyson Riggs / Netflix)

In the past decade, writer-director Brett Haley has steadily built an oeuvre of five near-perfect features, to which can be added his sixth, “All Together Now,” arriving on Netflix on Friday, and one of his best. Haley’s work isn’t flashy, but he pulls off something more difficult than it seems, making artfully crafted, deeply humane stories featuring likable, recognizable characters finding connection with one another. He makes hitting the bullseye where poignant meets soulful look easy, almost casual, and so far, Haley hasn’t missed yet.

It would be all too easy to write off “All Together Now” as just another Netflix young-adult project in its burgeoning canon, if it weren’t for Haley’s writing and directing credit — this is not another teen movie. He takes premises that would otherwise seem saccharine — in this case, the story of a young woman overcoming tragedy and incredible odds and learning to accept the love and support of her community — and renders them wry, funny, charming and incredibly moving, because the emotions, and people, feel real.

“All Together Now” is based on the book “Sorta Like a Rock Star” by Matthew Quick, who also wrote “Silver Linings Playbook” and adapted the screenplay with Haley and his frequent co-writer Marc Basch. It’s the story of Amber Appleton (the luminous Auli’i Cravalho, the voice of “Moana,” carrying her first live-action film in a leading role), a sunny, generous and talented Portland teen, who conceals from her closest friends and loved ones her struggles with her alcoholic mother, Becky (Justina Machado), and their living circumstances — homeless, sleeping on the school bus that Becky drives for work.

The nuanced performance required of Cravalho is tricky, playing a girl constantly managing her life, with a smile on her face, yes, but also with significant effort. Haley details the circus of Amber’s daily routine, hopping from job to job to school to volunteer efforts, and always with a joke or a snack to offer, breezily deploying her charm to both secure her basic necessities and camouflage the stark reality of her living situation.

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Haley has an obvious fondness for actors of all sorts, especially older actors, and actors who are different from what we usually see onscreen, in all kinds of ways. He surrounds Cravalho with a delightfully diverse cast, including the legendary Carol Burnett, Fred Armisen, Judy Reyes, Rhenzy Feliz and the appealing autistic actor Anthony Jacques (“Atypical”), who just about steals the show.

The story is simple but what makes the film remarkable is how Haley effortlessly, earnestly marshals performance, tone and style. “All Together Now” crescendos so subtly and so beautifully it’s overwhelming, infused with the love and power of collective care. Basking in the sheer goodness of a group coming together to lift up the most vulnerable among them is a balm to the soul in these dark times, and a profound reminder of what we can do, all together, now.

‘All Together Now’

Rated: PG, for thematic content, some language and brief suggestive comments

Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes

Playing: Available Aug. 28 on Netflix


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