Amber (Auli’i Cravalho) and her mother Becky (Justina Machado) are down on their luck. Things spiraled after the death of her father; Becky’s job isn’t enough to support them and unless they live with one bad boyfriend or another, they’re homeless. Like many high schoolers would, Amber struggles to keep this secret from her friends while working a multitude of after-school jobs to put cash in the kitty toward renting an apartment. That’s the dream. But she’s a senior in high school, so her dreams also include pursuing her music, and possibly pursuing the guy with the melty brown eyes (Rhenzy Feliz).
Amber is obviously a remarkable young woman. Her time and heart are splintered between many obligations. She’s got great friends but keeping her secret is an obstacle that stops her from really leaning on them for support. Auli’i Cravalho (you may know her as the voice of Moana) is a great choice for the role because her beaming smile lights the way through her hardships and sacrifice, and when that smile slips even the tiniest bit, we feel it immediately. Amber is juggling school work and work work and if she’s lucky, she sleeps at night illegally in the back of a cold bus, eating whatever her mother could flirt her way into acquiring, and trying to support her mother’s tenuous sobriety. But the next day at school she looks like any of her peers. It’s an interesting reminder that the face of poverty is not always what we expect.
With Cravalho, Fred Armisen, and Carol Burnett in the cast, we hardly needed any further inducement to watch All Together Now on Netflix, but then we realized Brett Haley was directing, and he alone would have been all the reason we needed. He is such a talented writer and director and I’ve been a fan of his since he shone his light on Blythe Danner in 2015’s I’ll See You In My Dreams and then he blew me away completely with Hearts Beat Loud. He’s got a real talent for raising up the everyday and finding moments of raw glory in ordinary people. Haley and frequent collaborator Marc Basch help Matthew Quick adapt his own novel, Sorta Like A Rock Star, for the screen.
Together they’ve crafted something special. Haley’s movies are thoughtful, sensitive, and measure. They reflect feeling rather than sentimentality. Amber is proud but if she’s shielding anyone from shame, it’s her mother, not herself. But Haley et. al show us the dignity in accepting help, in allowing our friends and family to get close enough to see the need and the opportunity.
All Together Now is a spirited film with a strong cast and a sweet story. It was a real pleasure to watch, a rare treat from Netflix.