“There were once two sisters…”, writes a girl while her voice narrates: she is sat amongst a cornucopia of rose bushes, scribbling on the unannotated bits of a music sheet, on a leaf, on a lonely piece of paper to be thrown away in the woods. Such a magic equilibrium between unpredictable quirkiness and a big heart is somewhat of a trademark of artist-actress-filmmaker Josephine Decker. Known for her experimental, yet heightened corporeal sensibility, she’s ventured in telling stories not about, but around artists and a most prominent example is her last feature, Shirley (2020), in which she gives the film form a Shirley Jackson-esque treatment and the result was no less than a gloriously unsettling feast for the senses.
The Sky is Everywhere is the second of Decker’s five feature films to not be written by the director herself after Shirley, as the new film–an Apple TV+ original–is based on a 2010 novel of the same name by young adult writer Jandy Nelson who is also credited for the script. However, the film fits perfectly within Decker’s filmography as themes of grief, sisterhood, and complicated relationships are bundled up in a particular kind of slightly polished messiness which retains the impression of real-life without being conventionally ‘realistic’. At the heart of The Sky Is Everywhere lies a story about a teenage girl losing her older sister and reckoning with the emptiness of her absence. But on the surface there are highly stylized visuals, bursting with the colours of spring and early autumn, wide-lens shots of woods that beckon you to enter and lose yourself in, even a dance number.
Lennie (Grace Kaufman) struggles to navigate life without Bailey (Havana Rose Liu) as a guiding light, keeping all her sister’s clothes piled on her bed, listening to her voicemail greeting, and almost giving up playing the clarinet because nothing makes sense anymore. While grown-ups are no source of consolation (although Cherry Jones as Gram and Jason Segel as the uncle make a perfect team), the only person who seems to understand Lennie is neighbour Toby (Pico Alexander) who happens to have been Bailey’s fiance. What brings them two together is a deceptive intimacy over the shared loss and the film handles its romantic tropes aptly while revealing its emotional impact by shedding layer after layer of romcom expectations. This is not to say that The Sky is Everywhere is entirely unconventional, no, but it uses the tropes in a refreshing, certain kind of way.
When Lennie finds herself attracted to her peer in music school Joe (Jacques Colimon), the film ups the ante on the lovey-dovey scenes à la Michel Gondry. The couple’s musical compatibility not only liberates Lennie from her performer’s block but literally elevates them in a floating sequence; in another, they listen to Bach for inspiration as wild roses adorn their bodies in a spur of magic realism. They later compare the feeling of exhilaration with sex and this is one of the many instances where the film doesn’t shy away from being cheeky. Also, Lennie repeatedly refers to people’s Christian namesakes, as she “has a thing for saints”, her uncle has an ambitious plan to resurrect dead insects, and the romantic culmination happens not at a train station or airport, but on a field with a hot air balloon.
The Sky Is Everywhere is fleshed out of joy and laughter, even at the moments of choking grief. The intensity of warm colours and the peculiar way the film is lit gives off the impression of a perfectly lit set even if most of the shots are exteriors of Eureka, California. Cinematographer Ava Berkofsky celebrated for developing techniques to light up black and brown skin in the second season of HBO’s Insecure, renders the few shooting locations magical, but never infantile. The faces and bodies radiate, reflecting light instead of absorbing it so that the characters become carriers of illumination and sources of light themselves. To make such a bright film about a deep loss is a humanistic gesture, imbuing the coming of age film with optimism that never debilitates its emotional reach. What may appear as a lightweight film upon first glance, The Sky Is Everywhere is hauntingly powerful: the simplicity of its plot intermingles with its vibrant aesthetics to assure the audience is enchanted and deeply touched deep into the viewer’s psyche and does so slowly [FINALE]
The Sky Is Everywhere is available to stream on Apple TV+ starting February 11
by Savina Petkova
Savina Petkova is a Bulgarian London-based freelance critic. In her spare time, she is a PhD candidate with a project on animal metamorphoses in contemporary European films. She lives from one film festival to the other, always on the hunt for animality, otherness, and visceral filmmaking. Savina admires bold story-telling as much as feeling-telling and defines her approach to criticism as sharp and ethically challenging. She is a regular MUBI Notebook contributor and writes for Electric Ghost Magazine, photogenie, and Girls On Tops. You can find her on Twitter @SavinaPetkova