They sleep in the back of a school bus in a dark parking lot, work for every single dollar, and they are homeless. Yet, Amber Appleton (Auli’i Cravalho) and her mother, Becky (Justina Machado) never seem to lose hope. Every night before falling asleep, the mother-daughter duo gets comfortable on the scrappy bus seats with old blankets and pillows to read Emily Dickinson’s poem “‘Hope’ is a thing with feathers.”
Amber reads, “I’ve heard it in the chilliest land / And on the strangest sea;”
Her mother continues, “Yet, never in extremity / It asked a crumb of me,” finishing the poem.
“All Together Now,” tells the story of a sedulous and optimistic high school senior with gifted musical talent despite the huge secret of her living situation. The Netflix teen drama is directed and co-written by Brett Haley, known for his films “The Hero,” “Hearts Beat Loud,” and “All the Bright Places,” based on the novel Sorta Like A Rockstar by Matthew Quick.
Despite the film’s emotional roller coaster ride to not tackle tragedies and hardships completely on your own because it will only cause more pain, the plot moves too fast to soak up these moments.
The film marks Auli’i Cravalho’s live-action film debut. Before “All Together Now,” Cravalho voiced the title character in Disney’s 2016 animated musical feature film “Moana” and starred in the NBC musical drama series “Rise” (2018) before a quick cancellation due to low ratings. Like her previous works, the film takes the opportunity to showcase the actress’s voice in an original song titled “Feels Like Home,” echoing the main character’s struggles with this line:
“Take me, I’m ready
Go slow, but go steady
To a place that we can call our home
I wanna know what feels like home”
Amber is the type of character you cannot put inside a box. She spends her evenings teaching English as a second language (ESL) classes to older migrant women, who adore her singing voice. After collecting her hard-earned money, she bikes to the donut shop with her tiny emotional chihuahua named Bobby in her backpack to work late hours.
In the mornings, she helps around the local retirement home, where she has created a special bond with a resident named Joan (Carol Burnett). In between it all, she keeps track of every dollar in a notebook before she hides her bike in a bush and walks through the dark parking lot to sleep and wait for her mother to arrive.
It is refreshing to see a friend group consist of neuroatypical people and people of color, creating a diverse and inclusive cast. For instance, one of Amber’s best friends named Ricky (Anthony Jacques) is on the autism spectrum played by an actor on the autism spectrum. Another friend named Chad (Gerald Isaac Waters) uses a wheelchair in the film and real life.
The film embraces a variety of characters by respecting the actors that play them; never once treating one character’s disability as a challenge that needs to be overcome by a non-disabled character. It is also lovely to see the main characters, Amber and Ty (Rhenzy Feliz), as people of color playing characters from different socioeconomic backgrounds yet still able to relate and confide in each other.
However, when it comes to Amber relying on her friends after a domino effect of bad things starts happening, she becomes stubborn and develops resentment toward needing help. After Becky’s employer discovers she has been sleeping on the bus, she is fired and decides to move in with her abusive ex-boyfriend named Oliver. In a heated moment of refusal, Amber runs away and sleeps on a bench for the night; leading to her backpack being stolen and a terrified Bobby. The scene comes off as predictable; the cherry on top for running away.
When Ty offers her a place to stay at his family’s vacation house, she decides to give in and ask for help on her audition for the drama program at Carnegie Mellon University, her deceased father’s alma mater. While this scene between Ty and Amber showcases the close friendship between two characters from different backgrounds able to relate to each other, it is the last sweet moment before Amber’s life takes a major turn for the worse.
Amber decides to confide in Ricky’s mother, Donna (Judy Reyes) and offers her home as a safe haven. Becky shows up in frustration that her daughter refuses to stay with her, eventually deciding to let her go and drives away and leaves with these last words:
“Life is so much more complicated than you think, baby.”
The following morning Becky and Oliver are killed in a car crash while driving under the influence. While I appreciate the film not explicitly showing her mother’s death, I felt like her death was so sudden and was added only to create more problems for Amber. In one scene, they are arguing about their lack of trust. In the next scene, Amber is called out of class and told by police officers that her mother is dead.
Yet, this is not the end for Amber.
The night before her flight to Pittsburgh for her big audition, Bobby gets sick and needs expensive surgery to survive. To save her dog (basically the last thing she still has) she drops out of school and starts working full-time.
She misses her audition and drifts away from her friends. When Ty confronts her and questions her refusal to accept help, it ends in an argument and the two stop talking.
Amber becomes a stranger to herself, and it is tough to watch. She no longer sings show tunes with the ladies at ESL classes. She stops trying to make her friend Joan at the retirement home laugh with dorky jokes. She loses her active, vibrant personality that was so lovable at the beginning of the film.
In secret, her friends along with her teacher (Fred Armisen) continue to work on the annual variety show and make all the proceeds go towards Bobby’s surgery. Ty takes on the challenge of confronting Amber once again and drags her away from making donuts to attend the show.
The surprise is worth it. Her friends perform skits and dance numbers in her honor, even bringing the ladies from her ESL class to sing a song they learned from Amber.
Later that night, the fundraiser receives an anonymous donation of $200,000 which is more than enough for Bobby’s surgery. Amber (finally) realizes the amount of love and support on her side. It all becomes more emotional when it is revealed that Joan was the one who made the generous donation, as she considers Amber her family.
The film ends with Amber and Ty sharing a kiss before she leaves for another audition at Carnegie Mellon. Even though it is a cliffhanger with Amber’s future still up in the air, the film delivers the message of not tackling life’s toughest challenges on your own.
When going back to the lyrics of “Feels Like Home,” Amber’s problem was not accepting help from others, but it was adjusting to the thought of needing help not as a sign of weakness but strength.
“All Together Now” is available to stream on Netflix.