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Turtles All the Way Down

In middle school, John Green novels were the quintessential YA diaries in which my friends and I indulged. Ferociously consuming his books and feeding our angst and inflated otherness through Margo Roth Spiegelman and Alaska Young, or pining for the love of Hazel and Augustus, the announcement of an adaptation sent us straight to theaters to see our literary parasocial relationships on the big screen. 

“Turtles All the Way Down” is the newest page-to-screen translation of a John Green tale, directed by Hannah Marks and scripted by two “Love, Simon” co-writers Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker. With both the novel’s publication and film’s release taking place years after my entry to adulthood, the persistence of Green’s youthful narrative charm was in question. But “Turtles All the Way Down” is the opposite of tired, certain to find an audience in its targeted teens and tweens and delight the minds and hearts of those who may suspect themselves too old for it.

Aza (Isabela Merced) is a timid teen with OCD, habitually finding herself in intrusive thought spirals concerning infection and the human microbiome, feeling like an endless Russian doll of a person, unable to find herself in the layers. Juggling her mental health alongside the grief of her late father and the angst of feeling misunderstood by her hovering though well-intentioned mother (Judy Reyes), Aza often feels drowned in her own humanity. Her best friend Daisy (Cree) is the opposite of her in every way: outgoing, witty, and perpetually unbothered, at times to the point of recklessness. 

When a local billionaire goes on the run to avoid pending charges, Daisy convinces Aza to sneak onto his estate in search for clues, in the hopes of snagging $100k worth of reward money for pertinent info. When caught by security, their saving grace from a call to the cops is that Aza knows the magnate’s son, Davis (Felix Mallard), from a childhood summer spent at grief camp. This reunion prompts a swift change from a childhood crush to a budding romance. But as Aza desires closeness, the expected butterflies of anxiety are metastasized by the oppressive influence of her OCD. 

“Turtles All the Way Down” is on the pulse of a very present sense of youth, one marked by discussions of mental health. Marks’ direction and excellent sound design, which sets Aza’s thought spirals to a soundtrack of pulsing static, places us effectively into her interiority. Neither the film nor Merced’s highly emotive performance pities Aza or people like her in an othering way. The proximity we’re given to her inner dialogue through Merced’s narration, as well as the palpable, smile-inducing chemistry of Merced and Cree’s Daisy root Aza so empathetically that we, with ease, can pinpoint our own anxieties, present and remembered, amidst her shallow breaths. However, her OCD and intrusive thoughts are not defining. Equally, the film's tenderness and humor are touching and exciting in the wealth of moments that are peripheral to lapses where she’s trapped in her mind. It’s also undeniably relatable. 

Aza and Daisy spend their days waxing sarcastic on their love lives, coupon-dining at Applebee’s, and driving around habitually listening to the CD stuck in the player of Aza’s car, Stankonia by Outkast (a sweet moment of them rapping to "Ms. Jackson" being just one highlight in the film’s colorful soundtrack, which also boasts needle drops from LCD Soundsystem, Tame Impala, and Billie Eilish). 

The Davis-Aza relationship is responsible for a large amount of heartwarming, kick-your-feet sweetness, but Mallard’s performance struggles to match Merced’s authenticity. While a handful of their one-on-one moments and preciously awkward text convos may recall your first big crush, and others your dreams of what it could’ve been like (unless your high school sweetheart whisked you off on a private jet to Chicago, in which case, good for you), there’s simply no match for the Aza-Daisy dynamic. Through all their ups and downs, the feeling of best friendship perseveres through the film’s love, lust, and bacteria. 

Marks’ “Turtles All the Way Down” shines with John Green’s trademark whimsy. It’s a charming, delightful YA romance that doesn’t bind itself to the sole enjoyment of its target market. “Turtles All the Way Down” will find the youth identifying and everyone else remembering. 

On Max now.

Peyton Robinson

Peyton Robinson is a freelance film writer based in Chicago, IL. 

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Film Credits

Turtles All the Way Down movie poster

Turtles All the Way Down (2024)

Rated PG-13

Cast

Isabela Merced as Aza Holmes

Cree Cicchino as Daisy Ramirez

Felix Mallard as Davis

Judy Reyes as Gina

J. Smith-Cameron as Professor Abbott

Director

Screenplay

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