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‘Turtles All the Way Down’: A lesson in loving and prevailing

Directed by Hannah Marks, “Turtles All the Way Down” is a faithful adaptation of John Green’s 2017 novel about a teen with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). In the movie’s emotionally charged opening sequence, Aza (Isabella Merced) informs her therapist that she’d “kill to be like normal people.” Already, we’ve gotten a glimpse into Aza’s mind, her intense fixation on bacteria conveyed through the b-roll of the organisms as seen through a microscope, punctuated with crackling electronic sound. This fixation permeates every aspect of her life; Marks tactfully inserts such sequences, alongside narrated internal monologue, into various scenes throughout the movie, allowing the viewer to empathize with Aza profoundly.

Externally, Aza’s life looks like a typical 16-year-old’s. She spends many of her waking hours with her best friend Daisy (Cree Cicchino), at school, in Aza’s bedroom or at Applebee’s. It is in this fast-casual dining establishment that the pair first learns about the disappearance of a famous area billionaire, Davis Pickett Sr.; Aza attended summer camp as a kid with his son. Daisy is thrilled at the prospect of earning the $100,000 reward for locating him and convinces Aza to help her investigate. Their investigation leads them onto the Picketts’ expansive property, where Aza is reunited with Davis Jr. (Felix Mallard). The mystery surrounding his father’s disappearance then takes a backseat — a pleasant departure from the novel’s substantial focus on it — as the movie explores a romance between Aza and Davis.

Aza is hesitant about pursuing this relationship at first, fearing her thought spirals will get in the way of authentic intimacy, but the ever-supportive Daisy encourages her to lean in anyways. It is because of Daisy’s encouragement that the anxious protagonist is able to enjoy some carefree, glee-filled moments as she gets to know Davis, despite interludes of intrusive thoughts. Marks proves to be adept at bringing the Gen-Z teenage experience to life on screen; the text exchanges between Davis and Aza are especially realistic, as is the way Aza exuberantly reacts to his flirtatious words in the privacy of her room. Even outside of their dynamic, the movie depicts many moments of pure joy, the kind that is uniquely felt in youth — and its quintessential pop soundtrack certainly contributes. That said, the dialogue and production design is predictably emblematic of the straight-to-streaming teen romance genre, always feeling a little contrived.

What’s unexpected is the level of emotional depth this movie is able to support. In addition to a persistent fear of infection, Aza articulates a feeling that she doesn’t know if she’s real. She resists taking medication for her OCD to preserve the parts of her chemistry that make her, her; she is wary of accepting a substance that promises to override her natural thoughts, further blurring the line between self and intruder. At a turning point in the movie, Aza gets stuck in her thoughts after finally allowing herself to kiss Davis despite microbe-related reservations. She can’t handle the fact that his potentially infectious saliva lingers in her mouth, and must feed drastic compulsions to calm her mind. Aza subsequently opens up to Davis about what she is going through. What could be an empowering moment, a chance for connection through vulnerability, instead feels like a reckoning. This is confirmation to Aza that she is not capable of functioning in a romantic relationship, perhaps any relationship, without her mind’s interference. Ensuing events send her lower and lower.

Merced is cast perfectly as Aza; she portrays the character’s internal strife with incredible rawness. Similarly, Judy Reyes gives a standout performance as Aza’s mom, a widow trying to do right by her daughter but plagued by a feeling of helplessness, as she can’t free Aza from her thoughts. It is the chemistry between the two that makes the movie’s darkest moments so palpable. It’s also Aza’s mom who helps her walk steadily toward the light again, reminding her daughter of the strength she sees and admires in her.

“Turtles All the Way Down” handles the topic of OCD and mental illness without sensationalizing it nor overwhelming the viewer with despair. The way Marks weaves an audio-visual representation of Aza’s disorder with the narrative conveys the extent to which OCD disrupts the day-to-day functioning of an individual who lives with it. The disorder is examined internally, rather than through its effects, straying from what one might expect from a movie with similar subject material. This treatment may in part be because of the PG-13 audience it caters to, but is also a testament to Marks’ directorial voice, which does push the envelope in some areas. Though this movie is far from a masterpiece, its messages prevail long after the credits roll. This is for anyone who’s felt like they’ve been going it alone.

Verdict: Though not without its shortcomings, “Turtles All the Way Down” is worth a watch for its poignant portrayal of a mental illness.

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