The sickly romantic weepy isn’t exactly a new genre — consider the 1970 smash hit “Love Story” — but it’s gained resurgence in the past few years with the runaway success such as “The Fault in Our Stars.” The success or failure of these films, which often dip treacherously far into sentimentality, rides on the plucky charm of its lead actors. Fortunately, “Everything, Everything,” based on the novel by Nicola Yoon, has the radiant Amandla Stenberg at the center.
Stenberg’s relaxed charisma carries what is a rather preposterous premise. She plays Maddy, an 18-year-old girl who has been confined to her hermetically sealed, sterilized home for her entire life, to avoid the threat of infection. She’s got Severe Combined Immunodeficiency Disorder, or SCID. Think Bubble Boy, only her bubble happens to be a fashionably appointed high-end modern home.
But all it takes is a glimpse of a moving truck and the new hunk next door to burst Maddy’s carefully curated bubble. After a few furtive glances with Olly (Nick Robinson), and a few text conversations, the two are quickly down the path to falling in love, a secret they keep from Maddy’s controlling physician mother, Pauline (Anika Noni Rose).
Aside from its leading lady, what “Everything, Everything” has going for it is its light, fantastical aesthetic and unexpected sense of buoyancy. Maddy has a highly developed imagination, informed by the books she reads, and the architectural models she builds. Director Stella Meghie sets the text conversations between Maddy and Olly in the diners and libraries the aspiring architect creates. It brings a visual intimacy to their budding connection and a quirky sense of humor and style to what could be rather maudlin and staid proceedings.
Olly is, unfortunately, underwritten. Like many of the male leads in these types of films, he is only defined by his love for Maddy, which seems to spring out of thin air. Robinson brings the right kind of puppyish affection, but facets of his personality and backstory are only suggested — an abusive father, an affinity for math and skateboarding. Mostly all we know about Olly is that he is unwaveringly devoted to Maddy and her happiness. Maddy’s notions of her own happiness involve the ocean, Hawaii and unfettered access to Olly.
As for all reckless, wanton teens in love throughout history, anything is possible and if it isn’t, they’ll try anyway. “Everything, Everything” is a sumptuous fantasy of teen love taken to the highest stakes with the threat of fatal illness, but without any of the unappealing physical symptoms. There is no delicate coughing into a hanky here.
“Everything, Everything” plumbs the limits of disbelief at times, but before this airy love story floats away entirely, it redeems itself with a dark, fascinating plot development that grounds it firmly to earth. You almost wish that more attention would have been paid to this part of the story, exploring the psychology and consequences, rather than swooning over the shallow love story. But if a love story is what we’re going to get, Stenberg and Robinson make a charming pair.
Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service critic.
Rated: PG-13, for thematic elements and brief sensuality
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes
Playing: In general release