Dark Times, Bright Places

“All the Bright Places” conveys the significance of vulnerability for teenagers


Finch looks at Markey after they finish swimming at the Blue Hole, a lake in Indiana. Photo courtesy of Walter Thomson/Netflix.

Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers of the Netflix original film “All the Bright Places” (2020). Trigger warning: Mentions of suicide.

“What are you doing?” 

Theodore Finch (Justice Smith) stops running and takes off his headphones when he sees his classmate Violet Markey (Elle Fanning) standing atop a bridge debating whether or not to jump off. 

“Go away,” Markey replies harshly. What Finch does not know is it is the anniversary of Markey’s sister’s death, Eleanor Markey, who died in a car crash. She is standing atop the same bridge where Eleanor died.

After that night, Markey and Finch go from classmates to friends to dating in the Netflix film adaptation of the book “All the Bright Places” by Jennifer Niven. Released on Feb. 28 and directed by Brett Haley, the story follows the two high school students as they navigate relationships, absent parents, grief and mental illness. 

Even if he did not realize it at first, Finch saved Markey’s life that night. Yes, he got her down from the bridge, but more than that, he taught her how to smile again. Markey’s life after her sister’s death was almost complete social isolation until Finch convinced her to be his partner for a school project in which the two were to visit different sites in Indiana.

While it seems the story is about a boy helping a girl through a hard time, Finch’s own mental health struggles shine light on the story’s central message. Known as the “freak” at school, he has sudden and violent outbursts and often disappears for days at a time during what he calls his “dark moods.”

Finch’s history of physical abuse, violent outbursts, wall of sticky notes and disappearances are all areas of concern that indicate he suffers from a mental illness. Finch claims he does not like labels, but having a diagnosis is an important part of getting better. 

“Why was he like that?” Finch asks, talking about his father. “There has to be a reason because if there’s a reason, then he could get better.”

This reflects Finch’s internal struggle as his lack of a diagnosis prevents him from knowing why he often acts out and has dark thoughts. After all, it is easier to ask about someone else than oneself.

Despite Finch’s inability to get help for himself, he is able to recognize Markey’s struggles and pushes her to open up to him. This is where an important juxtaposition happens. Because Markey was able to receive help from Finch, she was able to crawl out of her isolation bubble and never again stand on that bridge with suicidal thoughts, but the same cannot be said about Finch.

Finch’s suicide at the end of the film is heartbreaking to say the least, as it reveals the danger of suffering in silence. What is most upsetting is that the little help he received was superficial. He had a counselor’s meeting once a week, but those sessions were littered with Finch making jokes and deflecting every time the conversation got serious. 

Additionally, Finch’s sister (Alexandra Shipp) asks him if he needs help but accepts the first “no” he gives her. Rather than helping him, Finch’s friends accept his disappearances as “something you have to get used to if you want to be close to him.” 

This film does a great job treating mental illness, something that is uncontrollable for most people, with compassion. It reminds people to treat everyone with kindness because one cannot truly know what other people might be going through.

Finch’s experiences throughout the film do a good job portraying the complexity of life for someone living with mental illness. It shows moments of happiness and laughter with scenes of bike riding and dancing with Markey, but also moments of struggle such as getting into a fight with a classmate at school. Mental illness is not black and white.

Mental illness is not black and white.

The film ends with a glimmer of hope when another girl from their class, Amanda (Virginia Gardner), opens up to Markey for the first time about her struggles with bulimia and attempted suicides. This moment of raw vulnerability allows Finch’s death to be a lesson to anyone watching that it is OK to be vulnerable and how crucial it is to ask for help when suffering. 

Discussing mental health or struggles in general can be daunting as it forces one to be susceptible to rejection or invalidation. However, talking to someone trustworthy can reduce stress and provide support and encouragement. In the past, struggles have been seen as a form of weakness and pushing away feelings of pain is considered “strong.” It actually takes more strength to put oneself out there not knowing how others will react and ask for help. 

This is especially important for adolescents. According to the World Health Organization, they are the most susceptible to mental health illnesses during this formative period of their life. Not addressing mental health conditions early on can extend to adult life and limit one’s quality of life.

“I missed seeing something more important,” Markey said. “Seeing Finch. I missed that he was in pain. I missed that he was teaching me all along how to move on.”

If you are struggling with a suicidal crisis and need emotional support, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1(800)273-8255.

Finch helps Markey off the bridge in the beginning of the film. Photo courtesy of Cinema Blend.