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BY M.N. MILLER MAY 3, 2024
Turtles all the way down

Isabella Merced in Turtles All the Way Down | Image via Warner Brothers Discovery

The adaptation of the beloved young adult novel Turtles All the Way Down offers a poignant but shallow depth of insight into mental illness. In other words, Hannah Marks' coming-of-age film has its heart in the right place. The filmmaker is preoccupied with young women suffering from mental health issues ranging from anxiety and depression sparked by the trauma of abandonment. For example, Marks' last film, Don't Let Me Go, dealt with teenage angst, anxiety, and having her mother abandon her as a child.


When a 16-year-old struggling with obsessive-compulsive disorder reconnects with her childhood crush, she faces the potential of finding love and happiness despite her mental condition.


Here, writer Elizabeth Berger's (Love, Simon) adaptation of John Green's novel of the same name tackles the issue by taking a somewhat intimate approach but very tender look at obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) that exacerbate because of everyday teenage stressors and uncommon traumatic events, like the death of a parent.

The story follows Aza Holmes (Isabela Merced, Dora the Explorer), a precocious 17-year-old teenage girl in an existential crisis. Aza wants to attend college in the fall. Her mother (Judy Reyes, Scrubs) wants her to apply to Indiana, but Aza intends to go to the esteemed Northwestern University. There, she plans to be under the tutelage of the renowned philosophy professor and speaker Lucia Abbott (J. Smith-Cameron), whom Aza greatly admires.

Turtles all the way down

Isabella Merced and Cree in Turtles All the Way Down | Image via Warner Brothers Discovery

Aza’s best friend, Daisy (Cree, The Sleepover), balances her life in a way that brings her back to a mindful reality after Aza gets lost in her head, obsessing over germs and medical conditions (Aza’s head is like going down a WebMD rabbit hole and without the help of a search engine). This is most likely brought on by the loss of her father, who died in front of her as a young girl. Daisy is gregarious and always in the moment. Cree is outstanding here, delightfully punk rock, and delivers the perfect comic relief to Aza’s poignant teen angst.

Like any young adult novel, you pair real human behavioural problems with melodramatic, surreal elements of wealth and privilege. Here, the film is bogged down with a romantic subplot of a crush back in Aza's life. His name is Davis (Felix Mallard, Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist), a tall, adorable, and remarkably humble teenage boy she met years ago at camp. Davis's billionaire father has gone missing over fraud charges, and there is a cool, low-end six-figure for information on his capture. Cree's idea is to infiltrate Davis's home to find clues, but Aza falls for him because he is the only one who patiently seeks to understand her mental health struggles.

Turtles All the Way Down would have been a more compelling film if the source material hadn't fallen into YA clichés that involve wish fulfilment and unrealistic escapism, which is an issue I have with the source material. The film seems to use the element of a billionaire boyfriend's fractured family simply as a way to have Aza able to travel to Northwestern to hear her idol speak. Though this is one of the film's more powerful scenes, Succession's J. Smith-Cameron delivers a powerful speech metaphorically for teens in crisis. Referring to the film's title, the visualization of turtles through time represents the championing of coming of age.

Turtles all the way down

Cree in Turtles All the Way Down | Image via Warner Brothers Discovery

While it is easy to get lost in Turtles All the Way Down's pie-in-the-sky pursuit of unattainable money, the BFF's obsession with coupon clipping for restaurants striving for perfect product placement and the typical trope of teenage girls having a relationship-altering argument by the third act, the subtext and messaging of Hannah Marks’ film cannot be more profound.

Smith-Cameron's character’s monologue illustrates how we are the same person we were as we keep evolving. That's because our resiliency allows us to view life through an individual lens that comes with each experience. Like a first love or the loss of a father, the film's point in coming of age is about transformation, growth, and resilience.

Turtles all the way down

Cree in Turtles All the Way Down | Image via Warner Brothers Discovery

Yes, we must recognize that this is entertainment, akin to Flintstone's vitamins for medicine, in the way this is more about marketing positive messaging than anything therapeutic. Nevertheless, there is nothing wrong with enjoying Cree's funny, often hilarious, and effortlessly charming portrayal as Aza's loyal best friend. Or the visceral experience of Aza's anxious heart racing, excessive, unmindful depressive thoughts, highlighted by subjective camera work, visual distortion, and symbolic imagery, puts you in the mind of Merced's ability to embody a teenager, using unhealthy compulsive rituals or behaviors as coping mechanisms to deal with past traumatic events.

(Please note that Aza is in a constant state of unmindful, non-present practice, and her infatuation with her boyfriend’s “spiral” artwork is used in art therapy to promote mindfulness and reduce rumination.)

Yes, this amounts to a healthy sugarcoating of complex mental health issues. Turtles All the Way Down is certainly not comparable to the sobering Girl, Interrupted, or the elegant The Perks of Being a Wallflower. However, you will appreciate the protagonist's surprisingly mature choices by the film's end. That choice shows that there is always light at the end of the tunnel. Not just when young love ends but also when adapting becomes necessary to find a resolution, even at a tender age, when obstacles feel insurmountable.


Turtles all the way down rating

Turtles All the Way Down is now streaming on Max


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