Credit: Max
by Luke Gorham Featured Film Streaming Scene

Turtles All the Way Down — Hannah Marks

May 17, 2024

It wasn’t all that long ago when it seemed John Green’s shine couldn’t be blocked. A Young Adult author coming of prominence during the great age of Young Adult literature, Green skyrocketed to pop(/nerd) culture stardom on the ubiquity of both his books and their film adaptations. The Fault in Our Stars proved to be the core gospel (in both mediums) for most, and ushered in additional film and TV adaptations over the next half-decade: Paper Towns hit theaters a short year after FIOS; Green’s debut novel Looking for Alaska got the mini-series treatment in 2019; and the author’s name was enough to even secure a Netflix adaptation of his collaborative fix-up novel Let It Snow (co-authored with Maureen Johnson and Lauren Myracle).   But then Covid hit, #BookTok blew up, romantasy both fiscally invigorated and artistically bankrupted the publishing industry, and suddenly little room was left for Green’s relatively more honest and earnest works (if there aren’t dragons, bad bois, and half-assed metaphors for deep-dicking, then it barely counts as a book in 2024).

Lit professors’ exploding need for therapy aside, this massive shift in the book world means the latest adaptation of a John Green novel, Turtles All the Way Down, arrives at a distinctly strange moment. In fact, the project’s path to release quite readily testifies to the precipitous decline in interest for these kind of works: it was announced by Fox 2000 a mere two months after the book’s release, in December 2017, but was put into turnaround after Disney’s acquisition of 20th Century Fox, with the rights eventually sold to a circa-Covid New Line Cinema before parent company Warner Bros. eventually slated the film in for a streaming release on Max. Not exactly prime property treatment. 

Which brings us to the film itself. Ultimately a mixed bag that imbalances the best of Green’s strengths as a writer with poor instincts in adapting his work, Turtles All the Way Down the movie both fails to meaningfully transcend the current YA arts landscape and reminds us of the line between real author and the sort of undergrad-penned, AI-adjacent fanfiction that masquerades as literature while trading exclusively in one-degree calibrations of existing and exhausted trope frameworks. That’s not to overstate Green’s ability as a literary force, but rather to acknowledge that he’s one of the few YA authors who has proven capable of writing from a place of genuine teenage interiority, taking his young protagonists seriously as fully-fleshed humans rather than mere soap opera players or vessels for cheap adult nostalgia. That quality can be found in this film adaptation, its teenage characters identifiable as familiar types but (mostly) enriched beyond the single-quality mold that so easily anonymizes. Turtles All the Way Down also benefits from Green’s approach to shaping narrative, which likewise builds depth into recognizable setups and adds wrinkles to typical arcs.

Frank depiction of mental health struggles is also a Greenian signpost and has been the motivating force of the author’s fiction — usually tethered to a mystery/investigative thread to provide de facto narrative propulsion — and that remains true in Turtles All the Way Down, which documents 16-year-old Aza’s (Isabela Merced) battle with near-crippling obsessive-compulsive disorder, alongside her rekindled relationship with a childhood friend whose billionaire father has gone missing amidst corporate crime accusations. A cynical view of this tendency might cast the author’s typical subject matter as histrionic and manipulative, a reading done no favors by handing the director’s reins to Hannah Marks, whose own trio of theatrical releases has included two dealing with bone cancer and one with ethical non-monogamy. But that reading is a discredit to Green’s facility with bleeding the overly sensational and maudlin from such material, locating genuine humanity and complexity within arch outlines, particularly relative to genre bedfellows that only seem to develop teenagers with chalk-drawing depth and enough hormones to fuel a dozen orgies. He not only understands the messy anxieties that riddle our coming of age, and he is willing to interrogate this suspended state.

To this end, at its best Turtles All the Way Down proves an affecting study in unbalanced friendship, as the sometimes inescapable self-involvement of mental illness begins to cause a rift between Aza and her confident, easygoing best friend Daisy (Cree, the film’s MVP). The two performers share strong chemistry, selling the authenticity of what is the film’s true central relationship and generating genuine pathos when the film ducks into thornier spaces. Unfortunately, Aza’s budding romance with Davis (Felix Mallard) — afflicted by her debilitating fear of bacteria, and thus of kissing — is less successful; Davis never registers as much more than a cipher, and the tragic impossibility of their circumstance feels neutered situated against the deep feeling Turtles sporadically musters elsewhere. Somewhat refreshingly, the film seems to recognize as much, and understands Aza’s most important relationship to be the one she has with herself — with her OCD. But while it’s all handled with sensitivity and Marks partially solves the problem of how to visually present the tempest of intrusive thought spirals, the accompanying voiceover is less elegant in execution. There’s a precision to Aza’s internal monologue that seems at odds with the chaos of her mind, too easy to parse, and the effect becomes deadening after a while; scaling back this approach as the film moves forward would have let viewers fold this instructiveness into their reading of character and reckon with the essential enigma of her thought patterns more substantially that literal recitation allows for. And then there is the usual Green-ism that has heretofore failed to translate to the film medium’s more condensed form: the limited runtime means characters spew Philosophy 101 bromides as a shortcut to the development a novel gives more space to detail, and the final few minutes are especially saturated in sentimental and overly pat bits of dialogue, the equivalent of putting a dozen bows on a box. Flaws and all, there’s no denying that Turtles All the Way Down is still in some measure a gift amidst our bathetic era of YA-facing art, but it’s still fair to wish for something better than the cinematic equivalent of a blanket: comfortable, functional, underwhelming.

DIRECTOR: ddd;  CAST: Isabela Merced, Cree Cicchino, Felix Mallard, Maliq Johnson;  DISTRIBUTOR: Max;  STREAMING: May 2;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 51 min.