Elle Fanning and Justice Smith Talk Bonding Through Youth’s Sorrows in ‘All the Bright Places’

Elle Fanning is 21 years old but looks wise beyond her years, yet no less vivacious. The same can be said about her co-star Justice Smith, 25. Both actors sat down with Entertainment Voice to discuss “All the Bright Places,” an adaptation of Jennifer Niven’s novel which explores the darker side of youth’s inner struggles. Dark but not despairing, the Netflix film is directed by Brett Haley with a warm tone that prefers to reflect than sensationalize. 

Fanning plays Violet Markey, who one day nearly jumps off a bridge. But there to stop her is Theodore Finch (Smith). The two attend the same high school but are marked by personal scars. Violet is processing the death of her sister while Theodore is himself constantly obsessing over suicide and grappling with bipolar moods. When the two decide to team up for a class “wandering project” in which they explore sites around their hometown, a bond begins to form. Yet as Violet begins to heal Theodore seems to be spiraling deeper into a dark place. 

“I read the book when I was 14,” said Fanning, “Jennifer had kind of always had the vision for it to become a movie, that was her hope. So she asked me about playing Violet. I was in high school at the time and it rang so true to the feelings that I was feeling. I kind of had my first love at that time when I read the book. The story really stuck with me, I took years for it to get made.” A screen personality from a very young age along with sister Dakota, Fanning also used “All the Bright Places” as a chance to be a producer on the project. “I came on as a producer and really kind of built it. When you’re a young actor you’re on sets for so long, and I had seen how the machine works. I’ve always been interested in all the different parts of moviemaking. I’ve always wanted to be behind the scenes more. So this is the first movie where I’m able to do that. It was really exciting.” For Fanning elevating to producer status came with some new ways of seeing herself within the process. “I don’t know everything, I was definitely learning. But to have my voice heard, to feel respected in that arena was a really powerful thing. As you grow up you’re always trying to find your voice, so to have people you’re surrounded by really care about your input and your creativity…it made me grow as a person.”

“When I read the book I just fell in love with it,” said Smith about his own introduction to Niven’s novel. “The characters were really true to high school experiences. I felt very similar to Finch in high school, so it was a no brainer that I needed to play this character. I’ve done a lot of YA films and this one didn’t really feel like the others in the sense that Brett didn’t treat it as such. He treated it as a film about two people taking care of each other, working through pain together. That’s what gave it the nuance that it has.”

“To not talk down to young people,” added Fanning to Smith’s comment, “we never really referred to it as a ‘YA’ film. Of course it’s about young people but that doesn’t mean the feelings are diminished. Sometimes in the YA genre they sugarcoat it, but that’s not what this film is.”

Smith described the experience of playing the role as almost a release. “It was cathartic. It was like I had the answers I didn’t have then. So it was easier to imitate that unguided way of going about the world when you’re an adolescent. There was something liberating about going back to that period in my life with a new perspective.”

“We weren’t in high school when we made the film, so we could step back and reflect,” said Fanning. “Of course you do put some of yourself into the characters… it was Jennifer’s true story, and you feel the magnitude of how brutal high school can feel and the magnitude of those emotions.” 

While “All the Bright Places” is a film about the microcosm of high school, Fanning comes to it after an impressive career where she has worked with major directors like Sofia Coppola, Nicolas Winding Refn and J.J. Abrams. What has she taken from working with such filmmakers while now taking on a producing role herself? “You really pick up along the way. I didn’t have formal acting training, so I was learning on the job, on the sets. I’ve been fortunate to work with a lot of amazing directors. Sally Potter is definitely one. She’s a really close friend and Sofia Coppola too for sure. It was interesting watching Angelina Jolie in ‘Maleficent.’ She’s an actress but she produced it as well, and watching her navigate those two worlds and assert her voice was really interesting on set, and asserting her opinion. As a woman too you have to get into those rooms with those guys and not back down. We just did a show that I produced for Hulu and we had to pitch and all that. It was interesting being there with these big wigs.” The show Fanning mentioned is an upcoming period piece where she plays Catherine the Great, penned by Tony McNamara who wrote the acidly satirical “The Favourite.” Fanning is quite excited for the project which should be dropping in May. 

Every film shoot is an experience and both co-stars burst with enthusiasm when discussing their memories. “We shot in Cleveland, Ohio, we did karaoke,” said Fanning, “Shuffleboard. We had a Jacuzzi on set… but it was for actors only. We would get into the Jacuzzi and eat Swedish fish, Sour Patch kids, listen to a lot of music.” 

“We had a lot of fun,” chimed in Smith, who has starred in YA films “Every Day” and “Paper Towns,” as well as major franchises like “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.” Smith is gearing up to shoot the next installment in the dinosaur series, “Jurassic World: Dominion.”  

“It was fun being with people my own age,” reflected Fanning. “I haven’t really done a film with a lot of young people. I’m always the youngest on set. So it was fun to be around peers where we could have fun together and go out. I don’t get that a lot.” 

Smith in particular enjoyed working next to Kelli O’Hara, who plays Fanning’s mom onscreen. “Talking to Kelli was great. I’m obsessed with the theater world and she’s like a powerhouse in that field, I mean she’s a powerhouse in general, but I got to pick her brain a little about that theater world.”

For Fanning and Smith “All the Bright Places” need not be only for adolescent viewers, it has a relevance for any age. “I hope they have a nostalgia for their teen years, but also an understanding for young people,” said Fanning, “I would love that.” 

“If you’re older and you’re experiencing grief yourself you’ll see yourself in these characters regardless of the age difference,” said Smith, “grief is universal.” 

All the Bright Places” begins streaming Feb. 28 on Netflix.