Teenage Dreams Are Nearly Shattered by Homelessness in Netflix’s ‘All Together Now’

In Netflix’s “All Together Now,” the main character deals with realities and dilemmas quite different from many YA movies. Amber (Auli’i Cravalho) is a high schooler trapped in circumstances out of her control. She has talent and dreams, but they keep being grinded down by the kind of crises that have nothing to do with unrequited crushes or popularity contests. Amber needs help because life has aligned in a way to leave her without resources. Director Brett Haley is no stranger to films about the pressures of youth and how having decent parents is a roll of the dice. 

“I was drawn to the themes of hope, the theme of accepting help, and of giving help when people are in need,” Haley told Entertainment Voice. “I’m drawn to human scenarios. I don’t think they’re ever small.” In “All Together Now,” Amber Appleton is always helping others. She teaches ESL classes at night at a senior center, she washes dishes at a donut shop, organizes her school talent shows and gives her friends her undying loyalty. But Amber herself could use a hand. She’s homeless, living secretly with her mother, Becky (Justina Machado), in a school bus. Nothing has been the same since Amber’s father passed away. Becky has spiraled into alcoholism and has a new, deadbeat-sounding boyfriend. What Amber does have is musical talent. When an opportunity arrives for her to audition for Carnegie Mellon, Amber has to weigh her choices. She can save up and go, or stay home and try to take care of her mother. But even getting the plane ticket is a challenge. Making it harder is Amber’s own fear of letting others know about her situation, including Ty (Rhenzy Feliz), who is growing closer to Amber but comes from an elite background.

YA properties are all the rage right now, particularly with streaming services. “All Together Now” is based on a novel by Matthew Quick originally titled, “Sorta Like a Rock Star.” This is Haley’s second YA adaptation for Netflix. Earlier this year he released “All the Bright Places,” which dealt with themes of depression. “I started my career with two films about people that happened to be over the age of 70 and all I got was, ‘you make movies about people over the age of 70.’ Now I’ve made two films about two people that are high school age, and now everyone is like, ‘why do you make movies about people who are high school age?’ (laughs). It’s an ebb and flow. I’m not looking at it through a lens of youth. To me, it’s all about being honest to the human characters in the film. This character happens to be of a certain age. YA films, whatever that means, are simply producible. They’re kind of a Trojan horse for great films. It’s I guess what we would use to call ‘independent films,’ and now Netflix is making them with proper budgets, and giving a voice to filmmakers and the types of films that need this kind of budget.”

The central theme of “All Together Now” is how typical teen phases and moments for Amber are disrupted by her living situation. She helps so many others, making their lives happier, like autistic friend Ricky (Anthony Jacques), or Joan (Carol Burnett), who lives at the retirement home where Amber volunteers. But how do the near-destitute find happiness when opportunities seem fleeting? “All Together Now” features much of the romantic, larger than life moments and resolutions we expect in this genre, but it’s telling how this kind of popular entertainment tackles issues of class more than other, bigger budget or prestige movies. “My movies are about people going through this thing we call life. To me, Amber happens to be a teenager, that’s just one piece of a larger piece.”

Haley brings to the film a lively visual style that made his recent films like “Hearts Beat Loud” and “All the Bright Places” rich to gaze at. It’s a departure from some of the more simple approaches of such movies. “Me and my director of photography, Rob Givens, have worked together since we were 18. We came up together. We met in college and have been best friends and collaborators. We’re basically family at this point. It’s important that these films have cinematic texture, not just be this easily lit thing. I tried with ‘All the Bright Places’ and ‘All Together Now’ to avoid the ‘look’ you see in the YA genre, because it does have a ‘look’ to it, which is crazy. We didn’t want to fall into that, we wanted it to be more grounded. For this movie I was looking back at ‘Good Will Hunting’ and ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,’ I was looking at very classic, cinematic, ‘90s studio movies, what we used to call ‘studio movies’ in the ‘90s, where there was a more personal feel to it. Thank goodness Netflix is filling in that void. ‘Love, Simon’ was actually a great YA movie that is in that category, but is about more than just a romantic plotline.”

Auli’i Cravalho, best known for voicing Disney’s “Moana,” makes Amber palpable as a student aware of deserving dignity, while feeling at times as life is meant to box her in. “It all started with Auli’i,” said Haley, “you start there and then you ask, ‘who do I want to surround this star?’ It was a question then of getting the casting right for her mother. Auli’i, as everyone knows, is Hawaiian but she’s also half-Latinx. So she really wanted to show that side of her and show that part of her background. I definitely had that conversation with her on what she would like to see onscreen. And of course for Joan you can’t do better Carol Burnett. I said, ‘can we try Carol Burnett?’ She read it and said, ‘I want to do this movie.’ There was something there she respected and liked. She was a dream.” 

As with Haley’s “Hearts Beat Loud,” about a musician dad trying to reconnect with his daughter, there is a musical spirit to “All Together Now.” Amber has a great singing talent, and her closest group of friends are the school band nerds. Tensions rise with a love interest like Ty because he can see the potential, but when he offers help Amber shoves it away. Everyone around her can see it, even the Asian women she guides every night in their own group rendition of Shirley Ellis’s “The Clapping Song.”  The film’s grand climax is a talent show where that very song makes a memorable appearance. For Haley, who is in the midst of pre-production of a “Grease” prequel, “Summer Loving,” music and genre can be an influence on how one directs. “As a director the story dictates how you approach it visually. I try to look at every project as its own thing. I’m not going to be directing a prequel to ‘Grease’ the same way I directed ‘All the Bright Places.’ I need to fit into that genre and put my own spin on it. A lot of my movies have musical elements. ‘Hearts Beat Loud’ was obviously grounded in music. When I decided to make Amber a musical theater kid, I decided we need to have songs here. She has to have an audition. It has to be part of the journey. So I asked composer Keegan DeWitt to write a song, and he wrote ‘Feels Like Home,’ which is an incredible song sung by Auli’i. It’s such a special moment in the film. It’s like a bonus. It’s one million percent, in camera, happening live.”

All Together Now” begins streaming Aug. 28 on Netflix.