Magical realism meets teenage drama in ‘The Sky is Everywhere’

Director Josephine Decker, actors Grace Kaufman, Jason Segel and others delve into the making of a story that celebrates the messiness of being young

What happens when grief and romantic love — two consuming emotions — coincide in teenagers? Director Josephine Decker explores this premise in young adult drama The Sky is Everywhere.

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Based on the eponymous novel by Jandy Nelson, the story follows Lennie Walker in the aftermath of her sister’s untimely death. Torn between the euphoria of new-found love and a grief that devours her, Lennie is confronted with an emotional dilemma that eventually puts her on a journey of healing. Published in 2010, Jandy’s acclaimed debut novel has been adapted for film, starring Grace Kaufman in the lead as Lennie. Also featuring actors Jacques Colimon and Pico Alexander, the movie hopes to strike a chord with viewers as the book did with readers.

Discussing Jandy’s story, Josephine says she was tempted by the prospect of compressing a wide tonal range into one movie. “The balance of the film — the grief aspect and the joy — was a challenge. On a page, it works great…but in a film, the tone is challenging because it’s affected by so many things, like music and performance. We tried very hard to be true to the script’s comedy and playfulness, while also making sure the audience believed in Lennie’s loss.”

Keeping the magic real

Rooted in magical realism, the movie brims with vivid sequences that take viewers through the inner workings of Lennie’s mind; people levitate, flowers come to life, and it rains furniture. The film also consciously eschews special effects and depicts dream-like vignettes using traditional theatre props. Talking about this unconventional choice, Josephine says she was determined to opt for a technique that was more genuine. “I don’t have much experience with CGI, but I also don’t love watching it; it always feels a little false. In cinema, CGI feels like the icing, and not the meat of the story. So I asked myself ‘How can we make the characters’ bodies interact more with the magic?’”

A still from the show 

Jason Segel of How I Met Your Mother fame, who plays Uncle Big, agrees that the choice of stylistic devices in the story enhances the authenticity of navigating grief. “There’s a real sense of art in the way that they [the book and the movie] approach these issues…which to me is the function of art. Why we do this stuff at all is to explore difficult subjects through metaphor.”

Reorienting the genre

While romances often retain the spotlight on romantic love, Jacques, who plays Joe Fontaine, believes that The Sky… is different for advocating self-love and compassion. “The movie encourages forgiveness as self-care. Teenagers have a more difficult time embracing themselves, and this film celebrates who we are in the present moment,” he reflects. “The movie helps you take a look inwards, while seeing the characters be vulnerable,” adds Grace.

Josephine highlights that the characters’ emotional growth is intertwined with their love for music. Lennie, who loses her ability to play the clarinet after her sister’s death, is left without an outlet for her grief. Josephine understands this interruption in Lennie’s musical output as a loss of self-expression. “Grief, artistic growth and self-discovery are so linked. When you go through something challenging like Lennie has… music should be [your] vehicle. Most artists turn to art to nourish themselves.”

On a hopeful note, she adds, “You can look outside yourself for support to get through something, but your strongest lifeline is inside you… and Lennie’s music is inside her. In many ways, art can be a form of therapy.”

The Sky Is Everywhere is currently streaming on Apple TV+


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