While some Josephine Decker fans have decided to turn up their noses at her adaptation of Jandy Nelson’s 2010 YA novel The Sky Is Everywhere, I was delighted by the filmmaker’s impossibly beautiful, candy-colored vision of grief and love. Nelson prepared her own book for the screen, making a few key changes to the story of teenage Lennie Walker (Grace Kaufman) as the heroine figures out how to cope following the unexpected death of beloved older sister Bailey (Havana Rose Liu). Decker’s affinity for the fantastic, combined with the vivid hues of Ava Berkofsky’s fluid cinematography, will appeal to the young and young-at-heart — especially those who have lost a sibling or close family member.
While The Sky Is Everywhere addresses serious and very grown-up issues, this outing’s more family-friendly tone is a distance from the worlds conjured by Decker in cult favorites Butter on the Latch, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely and Madeline’s Madeline. Like Shirley, the screenplay for The Sky Is Everywhere was written by someone other than Decker, offering the moviemaker’s admirers another opportunity to observe how she handles material not originated (or co-originated) by the director. The critical consensus prefers unfiltered Decker, but there’s a thrill in the knowledge that her unique style is reaching a much bigger audience.
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Along with Berkofsky’s saturated storybook palette, Decker collaborates here with production designer Grace Yun and art director Cat Navarro, who both worked wonders on Hereditary. Set decorator Alex Brandenburg and costume designer Christopher Peterson also deserve special mention; all four of these remarkable talents supply a distinctiveness that invites the viewer into a place where everything is just slightly more intense than the reality we inhabit most of the time. And all these contributors align with Decker’s own flair for the performative and the theatrical.
The basic plot outline of The Sky Is Everywhere sets up a love triangle suspending Lennie between the attentions and affections of Bailey’s boyfriend Toby (Pico Alexander) and fellow musician Joe (Jacques Colimon). The resulting complications are familiar genre staples which Decker and her actors nevertheless handle with confidence and aplomb. But the real attraction of The Sky Is Everywhere is the manner in which Decker gets at the messiness and unpredictability of the everlasting shadow of grief. From survivor’s guilt to the crushing sorrow accompanying the unfulfilled promise of bright stars burning out too soon, Lennie pinballs from the highest highs to the lowest lows.
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The protagonist resides in a gingerbread cottage tucked amidst the breathtaking redwoods of Humboldt County and flanked by an aphrodisiacal rose garden. Yet, Kaufman provides Lennie with enough self-doubt, second-guessing and insecurity that she successfully grounds a character who occasionally floats right off her feet at the joy of making music or the recognition of romantic butterflies. The Sky Is Everywhere is Decker’s most conventional film — in this kind of territory, one wishes all the supporting characters were more sharply drawn — but the moviemaker’s core ideals remain. Decker is committed to immersiveness and immediacy. Her bold and passionate choices value and validate the subjective experiences of female artists/creators toiling to figure it all out.
Greg Carlson (@gcarlson1972) is a professor of communication studies and the director of the interdisciplinary film studies minor program at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. He is also the film editor of the High Plains Reader, where his writing has appeared since 1997.