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Turtles All The Way Down Review: Heartfelt Mixed Bag

A teenager looks worried in the film Turtles All the Way Down

Isabela Merced is the soul of the heartfelt but flawed Turtles All the Way Down, Max’s film adaptation of the John Green novel.

Director: Hannah Marks
Genre: Young Adult, Mental Health
Run Time: 111′
US Release: May 2, 2024 on Max
UK Release: May 26, 2024 on Sky Cinema

While my John Green phase had ended by the time “Turtles All the Way Down” was published in 2017, I am well versed in his works. That is why I immediately asked to review this adaptation: I could look at this with fresh eyes rather than trying to compare it to the book. One of the last takes on a Green novel, Hulu’s Looking for Alaska series, was quite good.

I would even go as far as to call it the most complete adaptation of the New York Times Best Selling author’s work. It felt like the novel was given room to breathe as a series, something that The Fault in Our Stars (2014) and Paper Towns (2015) mildly succeeded with as big screen films. So how does John Green’s latest novel turn out after being adapted as a streaming film on Max? Well, it is an enjoyable and heartfelt mixed bag.

Turtles All the Way Down centers on 16-year-old Aza Holmes (Isabela Merced, of Madame Web) who struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Aza and her best friend Daisy (Cree, of And Just Like That…) decide to investigate the disappearance of a billionaire and she reconnects with her childhood crush, Davis (Felix Mallard, of Ginny & Georgia) in the process. From there, Aza must confront the possibility of finding love in the face of her mental illness.

Even though I have issues with it, for the most part, the Turtles All the Way Down screenplay written by Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker is solid. They ease you in, giving viewers a feel for who Aza is before moving forward with the narrative. Given that she is the protagonist, and we will spend most of our time with her, that is incredibly important. If you do not have a compelling protagonist on the page, this story loses most of its impact. When you consider that John Green has struggled with anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder his entire life, you understand just how personal a narrative this is, even though it is fictional.

Berger and Aptaker treat Aza and her OCD with the utmost care and respect, portraying her as the human she is and highlighting the character’s positives. Aza is not treated like a burden by these writers, instead they help audiences better understand who she is and how she is feeling at any given moment. It can be heartbreaking to watch at times, but Turtles All the Way Down spotlights a struggle that many deal with and that more than justifies its existence.

Isabela Merced and Felix Mallard, two teenagers, are about to kiss in a room in the film Turtles All the Way Down
Isabela Merced and Felix Mallard in Turtles All the Way Down (Courtesy of Max)

This story also touches on how Aza’s mental illness impacts her relationships with others, which I thought was an excellent touch. The focus never completely shifts from Aza, but alongside her, we see how those in her day-to-day life are impacted. While the arc of her best friend, Daisy Ramirez, is majorly tied to Aza, that is not necessarily a terrible thing. At the end of the day, this is Aza’s story, with Daisy playing a major part in her life and being a witness to her OCD struggles. The writers give their friendship more of an arc than Daisy herself as an individual and it works. One could go as far as to say that their friendship is the heartbeat of the film and contributes more to Aza’s character growth than anything else. Isabela Merced and Cree also have gobs of chemistry with each other, which makes the friendship more authentic.

To go along with that, as Aza’s journey moves along, we get glimpses into how her relationship with her mom, Gina (Judy Reyes, of Scrubs), impacts her OCD struggles as well. These moments may be fleeting, but they are vital in many ways when it comes to our protagonist’s overall arc. Her love story with Felix Mallard’s Davis gets more shine, because what is a story for young adults without a love interest? Thankfully, Davis helps move Aza’s arc forward a ton and we get to experience what some with OCD experience when they attempt to have a physical relationship. It is not easy, and I respect Berger and Aptaker and director Hannah Marks for emphasizing that while also showing that Aza can love and be loved.

Davis does fall victim to something that I have seen happen in several of Green’s works, though. He does not feel like much of a character, but rather an object for Aza to be with. There have been times, like in Looking for Alaska, where Green has flipped the dream girl/boy trope on its head. However, that is not the case in 2024’s Turtles All the Way Down, despite the efforts of Felix Mallard. Berger and Aptaker cannot develop something when there is not much to Davis to begin with. Perhaps that pairing stripped him of any depth he had in the book, but more than likely this is what they were given. Daisy may not get an individual arc, but at least she feels real. Davis feels like a diary entry that came to life and while he does a lot for Aza, there is not much to him.

The ending of the narrative, without spoiling it, is also hastily wrapped up, particularly the mystery of the missing billionaire. I feel like that plot point had to have been given more room to breathe in the book, even if it only serves as a sort of catalyst for Aza and Daisy. Within the film, it comes back as an “Oh yeah! We should deal with that” and it is awkward.

Turtles All the Way Down: Trailer (Max)

Isabela Merced bounces back from the box office bomb Madame Web (2024) with a fantastic performance as Aza Holmes. She proves that the faults of her previous film had little to do with the quality of her acting. This is such a vital role for anyone out there that might be struggling with OCD and while I am not at liberty to call it an accurate portrayal, I do believe her work will resonate with audiences. Her performance is emotional, but never over the top, and she knows exactly what she needs to convey with her facial expressions or tone to make Aza a character who has so much soul.

Turtles All the Way Down is not the best John Green novel adaptation, but it is not the worst either. A lot of care seems to have been put into it by the director, writers, and cast even if the narrative has issues here and there. Isabela Merced is sensational enough as Aza Holmes to make it worth the watch, one that you should enjoy.

Turtles All the Way Down is now available to watch on Max in the US & Canada and more countries. In the UK & Ireland, the film will be released on Sky Cinema on May 26, 2024.

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