Turtles All the Way Down

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Can you have a boyfriend if even the thought of kissing someone distresses you? Turtles All the Way Down is the film equivalent of a Billie Eilish song, a tale of teenage angst written by John Green, who also did The Fault in Our Stars. And, as the Amazon algorithm puts it, if you liked that you’ll probably like this.

Aza (Isabella Merced) has OCD, which manifests as an extreme aversion to germs. Microbes, bacteria and c.diff in particular are what Aza thinks about all day long. Which means dating boys – all that saliva and oral glop – is right out. But that’s fine. Aza has her bestie by her. A chatty livewire, Daisy (Cree) is a cool, left-field kind of gal with pink hair, to Aza’s buttoned-down intense bag of nerves. What Daisy gets from this relationship isn’t entirely clear. Aza is smart and pretty, and maybe her debilitating condition bathes her in a doomy teenage glamour. On top of that maybe Daisy feels a bit sorry for her friend because Aza’s dad has recently died.

And then Aza meets Davis (Felix Mallard), a guy she’d actually met before at “Sad Camp”, where the diagnosed wackos go for the summer. A kid with troubles of his own, Davis’s vastly rich dad has just disappeared and with a $100K reward being advertised for finding him, Daisy reckons it would be a great idea if she and Aza got that money, because college is coming and the $50K each would be a very helpful wedge. So she has not entirely cutely engineered this re-acquaintance, not realising Aza and Davis are going to fall hard for each other, though the barriers to getting it on – her OCD, his wealth – are surely insurmountable.

Other things to consider at this point. You might suspect, since we’ve been told several times that Aza’s surname is Holmes, that a crime mystery is about to play out, with Daisy and Aza as cadet versions of Conan Doyle’s detective team in search of Davis’s missing billionaire father. Green dangles this lure only to withdraw it, at the same time removing Davis’s dad (the ostensible plot driver) from the story. Also around this point Aza’s misery over her own father’s untimely demise starts to fade in importance.

The daddy issues have soon become lost in the mists of romance, only to be replaced by another problem: the can they/can’t they of an impossible relationship, much as we got in The Fault in Our Stars, featuring two young people who are clean and nice and whose problems don’t exactly amount to a hill of beans.

Davis and Aza seen from above
Davis and Aza

So, yes, it’s a film for your inner 16-year-old, cleanly and unfussily directed by Hannah Marks – who with After Everything and Don’t Make Me Go has shown she can handle dramas about youthful angst – written by a man who is now in his mid-40s, so some of the cultural references seem a little old for the Aza/Daisy/Davis generation. Green does also like his teens to be squeaky. Sex is a thing but it’s somewhere way over there. No one drinks or vapes. Drugs? What do you think?

Chastity can be quite refreshing though, and in this John Green isn’t a long way away from Nicholas Sparks, writer of so many other wistful romances full of soft-focus swans and clean-limbed maids and swains with a hill to climb.

It’s not as gut-wrenchingly good as The Fault in Our Stars, partly because Merced and Mallard are not Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, though both of them really grow into their roles after a shaky start, as does Cree. To be fair to the actors it is as if they are all thrown a touch by Green’s early attempt to Booksmart things up a touch. Unfortunately his dialogue doesn’t quite have that snap and he isn’t prepared to go to the darker parts of the teenage mind, like Booksmart did. It becomes another thing that gets abandoned, as the dads have been, and at a certain point it looks as if Aza’s OCD is the next thing for the scrapheap but it hangs on by a dirty fingernail.

There’s a mention of Schopenhauer, and Immanuel Kant also gets namechecked, and the film’s title, a reference to the World Turtle that supports the flat planet in some ancient mythologies, is explained away in psychological terms. It’s for know-all teenagers, who can be a bit of a struggle, but are nothing compared to know-nothing teenagers. And for all its cavalier structural fractures, it does eventually do what it’s meant to do. If you’ve read this far, you’ll probably like this.

Turtles All the Way Down – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2024

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