On the surface Everything Everything is your typical novel-adapted teen romance film. It’s about an 18-year-old girl named Maddie who falls in love with the mysterious boy next door, despite a medical condition that keeps her confined to her home. It’s a super cute love story that’s bound to be a box office hit. What’s groundbreaking about the film, however, is that unlike many of the young adult films we’ve seen in the past, the protagonist in this film is a black girl.
Though I’m technically no longer a teen, Everything Everything satisfied the lovesick teenybopper that still lives inside me. As an angsty adolescent I was constantly reading teen romance novels in my free time as an escape from my non-existent love life. Yet, as a black girl I often struggled to find myself in these kinds of novels. The film adaptations of books such as The Fault in Our Stars and Paper Towns were but visual proof that girls who looked like me aren’t typically viewed as fantastically beautiful or mysteriously stunning. In teen novels and films alike, black girls are always the sassy best friends or the forgettable sidekicks. We never get to be the utterly desirable girl next door that some smooth-talking, cute boy falls hopelessly in love with. Everything Everything finally gave us the chance to be that.
Amandla Stenberg, who is the actual definition of carefree, plays the main character, Maddie, in the film. Everything Everything satisfied her “little 14-year-old indie heart,” Amandla said in a Q&A following the movie premiere in Hollywood. Also present at the Q&A was Nicola Yoon, the writer of the book, who talked about her decision to make Maddie’s character biracial. She said, “Maddie looks the way she does because my little girl looks the way she does.” Nicola wrote the story with a biracial protagonist because she wanted her daughter to be able to see herself in literature someday—something she wasn’t afforded when she was a teenager who loved to read. Amandla described her initial reaction to the script during the Q&A, “When I received the email with the script I was like, ‘this looks like something they’re going to want to make with a white girl. Why am I receiving this email?’” However, after reading the book, it became clear that the protagonist was, in fact, a biracial girl. It was primarily the existence of a biracial protagonist in the book that prompted Amandla to accept the role for the film. “We’ve seen young adult teen stories before, but we never get to see it with a black girl in the lead,” she said.
I couldn’t help but snap my fingers in agreement when Amandla spoke of the way Everything Everything highlights the personhood of black girls. “It was important for me to see a character that was a black girl who was a person,” as she so eloquently put it. The presence of a black actress in a role such as this one has huge implications, for black teenage girls. For too long the stories we’ve seen about black women have surrounded slavery, segregation, or some other form of oppression. And while it is extremely important that those stories get told, it is exhausting to only see someone who looks like you portraying those kinds of roles. For teen black girls, especially, it is important to be able to see portrayals of themselves apart from the oppression of their ancestors. To see someone who looks like them simply being. That’s exactly what this film accomplishes. It’s not a movie about a black girl falling in love with a boy, it’s a movie about girl, who just so happens to be black, falling in love with a boy.
Everything Everything is what young black girls have always needed. It reinforces the inherent beauty that black women possess, while acknowledging our inherent humanity. It reminds us that we too, with our kinky hair and dark brown eyes are worthy of the mindless teenage love we’ve all desired at some point in our lives. This kind of media creates visibility for and normalizes the black experience. My hope is that Everything Everything would pave the way for filmmakers to tell similar stories in the future. That the monolithic story-telling we’re too used to seeing would radically shift towards the normalization of diverse experiences.
Everything Everything is in theaters on May 19th!