Turtles All the Way Down Flattens John Green’s Novel

Movies Reviews YA Books
Turtles All the Way Down Flattens John Green’s Novel

In The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry writes, “To have great pain is to have certainty; to hear that another person has pain is to have doubt.” Much of the point of John Green’s 2017 YA novel Turtles All the Way Down is to make the pain of feeling—and living with—mental illness intelligible to readers. It all takes place in Indianapolis high schooler (and hypochondriac) Aza Holmes’ head, her panic attacks mingling with narration as she fails to live up to her literary namesake.

Aza is the wrong kind of sick. She’s obsessive about her own death in a way that obscures reality, not enhances it. Her teen mystery thriller and first love romance story are constantly derailed by her panic attacks, in a subversion of the mental illness tropes pervading the same pop culture that director Hanna Marks’ film adaptation now inhabits. Marks has to pull this movie off while shifting the audience out of Aza’s head through the fourth wall. As a viewer, I’m left again simply spectating Aza’s sickness. Doubting.

Aza (Isabela Merced) is pulled through the typical narrative beats of high school by her best friend, accomplice and platonic soulmate Daisy (Cree Cicchino). Turtles All the Way Down takes a turn towards mystery when the girls learn that a local billionaire is missing, and Aza happens to have once befriended his son at a camp for children with a deceased parent. Their investigation immediately thwarted, the scion Davis Pickett (Felix Mallard) enters Aza’s story as a crush. Caught between the two, she breaks.

Spirals are the central image of Green’s book, and unpacking how we use metaphors like that are central to Aza’s growth. She contends with both philosophy and medication as matters of survival in her psychiatry. Now more explicitly labeled as obsessive–compulsive disorder (Turtles All the Way Down is partnered with a number of mental health organizations, including the International OCD Foundation), Aza’s frequent panic attacks manifest as dissociative spirals that convince her that she is dying of a rare disease.

She’s lived like this for years, but as the future of her story forks with college looming and new relationships blooming, Aza’s caught battling against the tide of narrative being projected onto her. Daisy’s empathy and patience are strained; Davis’ courtship pushes too far towards a normalcy she cannot manifest; Aza’s dissociation reaches levels of self-harm. Bereft of her first-person voice, Aza’s panic attacks are portrayed through sonic and visual cuts to microscopic footage of cells and Aza’s spiraling inner monologue, accompanied by an ambient hiss. But while Aza imagining herself wheeled into a hospital—a sheet placed over her corpse—could invoke horror, the editing and soundtrack (“Bad Guy” thumps along six years too late) strive to keep the tone light.

It doesn’t help that, given the script, that the impact of these scenes rarely lingers past the next cut. While I found the climactic depiction of self-harm effective, most of Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker’s screenplay rushes to return to a baseline humorous tone—which isn’t the only time it feels like some force is flattening Turtles All the Way Down

While Aza is too dissociative to ever offer a description of her physical body in the novel, here she and Daisy are always fashionably alt. Everyone has Pinterest-core bedrooms with always-made beds and sets that feel borrowed from an Apple commercial (you cannot convince me that an American cafetorium has ever been so clean). And of course, everyone has a Mac and iPhone. Yet the most egregious product placement is not the Applebee’s where at least four scenes take place (presented with a modicum more respect than the novel), but Dr. Pepper. Bottles or cans are displayed perfectly for the camera in no less than three shots, while the idiosyncratic quirk that it is Aza’s favorite soda speaks nothing to her character and entirely to her author, who has a public and professional fondness for the soft drink.

All this is to say that execution isn’t the problem here—the acting, direction, editing, set design and costuming are all done well enough. It’s that these elements add up to something that doesn’t feel subversive at all, just vaguely aware of itself. Its sum total is no more than the lamp shading that takes place when Daisy spells out the entire conceit of Aza’s character (that she doesn’t have OCD like the detectives you see on TV) less than 20 minutes into Turtles All The Way Down

That Turtles All The Way Down fails to convince is a personal disappointment. I know Aza’s spirals and hypochondria well. My selfish wish was that this movie could be what the book already was—a cipher to which I can point friends, family and therapists—without the commitment of reading a whole book (they rarely do). For now, I’ll have to live with all the empathy of a two-hour commitment.

Director: Hannah Marks
Writer: Elizabeth Berger, Isaac Aptaker
Starring: Isabela Merced, Cree Cicchino, Felix Mallard, Judy Reyes, Maliq Johnson, J. Smith-Cameron, Poorna Jagannathan, Hannah Marks
Release Date: May 2, 2024 (Max)

Autumn Wright is a freelance games critic and anime journalist. Find their latest writing at @TheAutumnWright.

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