All My Life adopts the familiar form of any number of tragic romances without building any depth into its vision.
Jessica Rothe is undoubtedly one of the most promising young actresses working in film today. Her calling card is the particular brand of charm and playfulness she exudes, marked as it is by an edge that makes her performances all the more compelling. And as she demonstrated in the surprisingly enjoyable Happy Death Day series, she has the ability to bring depth to a character where none otherwise exists, communicating an emotional honesty that is at times bracing. Her comedic chops are likewise on-point, and she can convincingly cry on cue with the best of them. It’s that last skill that gets a major work-out in her latest feature, the Hallmark Channel-esque tear-jerker All My Life, which finds Rothe once again saddled with a film unworthy of her talents, though she manages to ever so slightly elevate the material through sheer presence and force of will. The particular flavor of this starring role was perhaps inevitable, as the film slots in comfortably to the paint-by-numbers, stepping stone path that every actress seemingly must follow at the start of her career: Rothe has checked off the horror scream queen bit, and All My Life represents the next phase — teen-friendly misery porn posing as romance. That particular description may be a tad harsh given that the events here are indeed inspired by a true story, but reality is the last thing this film has any interest in addressing.
Like Love Story, A Walk to Remember, The Fault in Our Stars, and countless others before it, All My Life tells the story of a perfect love between two fantastically good-looking people whose relationship is doomed by disease. It’s no wonder that films like this have such a fervent fan base: the aching romanticism of a love snuffed in its infancy by the dark and twisted hands of fate compels our most fundamental humanity. From Shakespeare to Sparks, readers have found fascination in romance that burns bright but brief, immune to the everyday annoyances of long-term relationships. The central couple here, Jennifer (Rothe) and Solomon (Harry Shum Jr.), are the kind of 21st-century clichés that meet at a sports bar, have their first date at a farmer’s market, and rent an apartment so ridiculously hip and out of their price range that even the front entrance looks like an art piece by Henry Moore. Over the course of a single montage, the two have become inseparable, and are soon inspiring one another to do things like quit their digital marketing jobs to become world-famous chefs. But their fairy tale world is quickly reformed into tragic reality when Solomon suddenly can’t avoid the nagging pain he’s been feeling in his side for months, and the truth is revealed: liver cancer. Rather than address the strains this causes on the couple’s relationship, though, All My Life instead chooses to focus on how all of this pesky cancer business throws a monkey wrench in the lovers’ wedding plans. It’s up to their core group of friends, who look like a Benetton ad come to life, to take control of the situation, start a GoFundMe campaign, and give these kids the wedding they deserve. It’s all very sweet in a Hollywood fantasy kind of way, which only emphasizes the disservice it does to the very real couple at the heart of its tale.
The biggest problem is that director Marc Meyers — an obvious choice for this romantic drama after his previous work on My Friend Dahmer and We Summon the Darkness — and screenwriter Todd Rosenberg show no interest in offering anything in the way of pathos or authenticity, not exactly shocking for this particular sub-genre, but a deficit that feels especially egregious considering the films ends with footage of the real-life couple. At only 90 minutes, everything is rushed to the point of absurdity, and the only reason the central relationship is able to elicit any sort of emotional response from audience members is thanks to the above-the-cut chemistry between Rothe and Shum. The film does manage to settle down long enough to discuss the impact of Solomon’s diagnosis, but this foundational plot point is limited to a single scene, and even then feels like an afterthought. Elsewhere, Solomon details the various agonies he has had to endure as a result of his chemotherapy, and it indeed is affecting, but the film has no interest in documenting any of his struggles, content to simply articulate them for maximum emotional manipulation. Indeed, All My Life is an oddly neutered film for a genre that, for better or worse, luxuriates in the pain and suffering of its protagonists; even something like The Notebook had the courage to show the absolute hell its characters were enduring, which seems requisite fodder for such misery business. Instead, Meyers is of the persuasion that asking Shum to shamble around slightly hunched over will suffice. He maintains his ripped physique and gorgeous, wavy hair throughout, but he does get some pale make-up applied by film’s end, so credit where credit is due.
All My Life also feels as though it was hacked to death in the editing room, as characters and subplots go missing for large periods of time, including one involving Solomon’s friend Dylan that makes absolutely no sense in its current form. There are quiet, affecting moments peppered throughout that hint at the more substantive film that could have been: Jennifer momentarily scanning the crowd after losing sight of Solomon on their first date; a simple walk from one living space to the next that feels like an eternity as Jennifer contemplates devastating news. And the film deserves genuine praise for eschewing the big deathbed scene, although its emphasis on a pre-funeral eulogy cribs directly from the aforementioned Fault in Our Stars. Its central message — “Now or never, live each day to the fullest” — is especially trite, but gets a bit of a pass in a COVID-ridden 2020, likely hitting a little closer than under normal circumstances. Still, situated as it is within its specific subgenre, All My Life fails the ultimate test: it leaves a dry-eyed audience. Rothe will deservedly move on to bigger and better things, and this film will find renewed life on the Freeform channel, distracting slumber party attendees and gym-goers for years to come. The thing is, they, too, deserve better.