The Limitations of Brightness

This review is part of my Mental Health in the Movies project and is a discussion of the film(s) portrayal of psychopathology and/or psychotherapy.

Content warning: the following includes discussion of suicide in addition to depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder.

All the Bright Places is a young adult coming of age romance about two mentally ill teenagers. It’s the young adult version of the middle grade novel and film Bridge to Terabithia: an imaginative misfit helps the protagonist deal with their trauma by finding whimsy in the mundane. In both stories the misfit dies suddenly, drowning off screen, and the protagonist uses their lessons to cope with the tragedy and honors them by teaching others to look at the world differently. That message is positive; the messaging on mental health is thornier.

Bridge to Terabithia touches on class inequities, childhood trauma, and bullying, but does not expressly address mental illness. All the Bright Places does. The central character, Violet, is suffering from depression after the death of her sister, Eleanor, in a car accident. Her depression is depicted as being stuck. The film opens with Violet on a ledge where the accident took place, trapped in the moment. She doesn’t want to spend time with her friends or participate in school. She refuses to get in a car or go on a date. She’s emotionally paralyzed, her depression is explicit, and textually described by the end. The secondary protagonist, Finch, struggles with “dark moods”, insomnia, impulsivity, and dissociation, and ultimately drowns in what appears to be a suicide. There are mentions of abuse and instances of violence, and he has intermittent counseling sessions. His disorder is explicit, but undiagnosed, and his worst episodes all occur off screen. 

Violet and Finch collaborate on a school project that requires students to explore their home state, Indiana. Violet has no interest in the project and little interest in Finch, but reluctantly agrees to go with him. Thus Finch introduces Violet to the charm of the ordinary and the offbeat. The more bright places they visit, the more engaged Violet becomes, with the project, with Finch, and with life. 

The film centers Violet and her journey, often leaving Finch on the periphery until ultimately he disappears entirely. Depression is one of the most commonly diagnosed mental disorders, which makes it one of the most relatable to a mainstream movie audience. Its diagnostic criteria, however, does not easily lend itself to storytelling. Someone who feels empty and worthless, has lost interest in all their activities, can’t concentrate, and spends most of their time thinking about death is not a compelling protagonist. No one wants to watch a movie solely about Violet being depressed, the film needs Finch to pull her out of it. That is the story being told, but it leaves Finch underserved. Bipolar disorder is far less understood than depression and the film’s focus on Violet prevents it from engaging with Finch’s issues in a meaningful way. 

For example, Finch surprises Violet with a car full of flowers after disappearing for days. Violet is angry at both his disappearance and reappearance until he presents this gift, described as bringing Spring to her. Then, she smiles, laughs, and forgives him. The flowers break through Violet’s depression, but, unfortunately, they also distract her from Finch’s behavior and needs. Violet is named after a flower, and Finch after a bird. Flowers are stationary, unable to travel, while birds fly free. But birds are drawn to flowers. Finch shows Violet the beauty of the world around her but sadly she does not show him how to land. 

While not named in the film or the book it is based on, there are references to bipolar disorder throughout.  In “‘Between a rock and a hard place’: family members’ experiences of supporting a relative with bipolar disorder”, one participant likens mania “to ‘the human equivalent of a rollercoaster ride’ (P17, daughter).” This is a common descriptor of bipolar disorder, also described in “Hold on Tight: Coping Strategies of Persons With Bipolar Disorder and Their Partners”— “Living with [Bipolar Disorder] is sometimes described by [People With Bipolar Disorder] (and their partners) as ‘riding an emotional roller-coaster.'”— and evident in a quick google search of the terms ‘bipolar disorder roller coaster’. So it is appropriate that one of the ‘bright places’ that Finch shares with Violet is a roller coaster built in a backyard. The reference to bipolar disorder is not obvious but is notable.

Finch quotes Virginia Woolf, whom is it widely agreed had bipolar disorder, in an early scene of All the Bright Places. Later he and Violet trade Woolf quotes through text to communicate their desire for connection. Violet uses an internet search to find meaningful quotes to use, but Finch has a book with color coded post-it bookmarks on his desk. He’s read and probably reread Virginia Woolf, suggesting he relates to her writing, her point of view, and by association her mental illness. Virginia Woolf died by suicide, filling her overcoat with stones and walking into a river. Finch also dies by drowning, in a lake he’d brought Violet to and where they shared their first kiss. When he disappears after a fight, she returns to the lake to find his car and his clothes, and in his pocket a stone with the words “your turn” written on it. This again centers Violet over Finch— suggesting now that he’s died, she can find the bright places on her own —and again references Virginia Woolf.

A compelling use of visual storytelling is Finch’s habit of displaying reminders to himself on colorful post-its pressed to his wall. This is a coping mechanism for his bouts with racing thoughts and dissociation, both signifiers of a bipolar mind. The hundreds of post-its collected on his wall is a beautiful visual depiction of his disordered mind. It is all the more powerful when in a fit of anger and despair he rips the post-its down and then attempts to paint over the remains. The scene is the best representation of Finch’s disorder in the film. Later, Violet discovers the room, the leftover post-its, haphazard paint, and messy clutter, and inadvertently sends Finch into crisis with her reaction of fear, confusion, and a need to fix it. The film suggests Violet is the first person, other than Finch himself, to really interrogate the post-its as a depiction of Finch’s problems and needs— but she is not equipped to help him.

In “Hold On Tight”, the authors write that “Both partners and [People With Bipolar Disorder] reported that professional help was important as they coped with [Bipolar Disorder]”. Without professional help, support is left to friends and family, and that support is lacking, and damaging to the caretakers as well as the sufferers.

In All the Bright Places, neither Violet nor her parents are shown to be in counseling despite their loss. This leaves Violet’s healing entirely to Finch, a peer who is struggling himself. Finch is counseled at school and attends one group therapy meeting, but neither are adequate to his situation. It’s not clear what training Finch’s counselor has, but even if he is a clinical psychologist, he is working at the school, during school hours, and does not have the capacity to help or even diagnose a bipolar teen. 

While the support group scene is a welcome depiction of the diversity of young people struggling, it also reveals the limits of these types of help. The variety of disorders and experiences is good for representation but not for intervention. One student introduces himself with a string of diagnoses that he seems almost proud to claim. He is clearly well informed and experienced with disorders and therapy, and has likely studied his own diagnoses and perhaps self-diagnosed and/or structured them as an integral part of his identity. Violet’s friend Amanda tells the group she is bulimic and thinks about suicide every day, which allows her to connect to Finch, but does not appear to change anything outside the confines of the group.  Finch claims no labels in his introduction, and does not know the clinical words to describe his feelings. He struggles to explain why he came or what he expects. This echoes Kay Redfield Jamison’s memoir: “I knew something was dreadfully wrong, but I had no idea what.” and “I had no idea of what was happening to me, and I would wake up in the morning with a profound sense of dread that I was going to have to somehow make it through another entire day.” Although Finch makes the effort to come to the group, it does not provide answers and there is no indication the facilitator followed up with him, or attempted to get him more help.

Finally, there is Finch’s death. Finch is known to disappear for hours to days at a time. It’s mentioned by his sister, his friends, and his school counselor. They acknowledge this behavior is problematic and indicative of a larger issue, but they’re used to it. They accept, even enable it. Violet pushes back on their acceptance somewhat, but, again, she doesn’t have the skills required to reach him either. Ultimately, she goes looking for him too late. We do not see Finch going into the water, nor his body being removed from it. We see Violet find his clothes, sob and scream, then wait sad and motionless while the flashing lights of emergency service approach her. The blurred lights blend seamlessly into Finch’s funeral. It’s absolutely heartbreaking. But it’s also as pretty as it is tragic and just ambiguous enough to allow us to wonder if Finch intended to drown or was merely reckless with his life.

The film ends with Violet presenting their school project. Finch pulled her out of her depression, she tells the class, and now she knows how bright and beautiful life can be. She revisits the bright places with his, now her, friends, and they dance in the sun. In the final frames of the film she travels to the last place on their map, one they hadn’t gotten to before his death. It’s a chapel known as a resting place for wanderers and a healing place for mourners. Violet finds Finch signed the guest book, with the words “I was here.” Violet smiles. 

The use of the cinematic medium is effective in telling this story, and portraying mental illness in a film pitched at teenagers is important. But the use of allegory, metaphor, theme, poetic scripts, and soft lighting also introduces ambiguity and obscures that these disorders affect real people in real ways that are not cinematic. Ways that are not only pretty or scary or romantic or tragic, but boring and tiring and lonely and blunt. Therapeutic intake is tedious and repetitive, and such a scene would grind the movie to a halt, but it might have saved Finch’s life.


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