Turtles All the Way Down review, excellent mental health story

Isabela Merced in Turtles All the Way Down

Turtles All the Way Down is a careful and well done exploration of mental illness in a teen girl played by Isabela Merced. It’s a story of friendship, budding romance, grief, love, and obsession.

Aza (Isabela Merced) is obsessed with germs, microbes, C-Diff, and her own internal microbial world. The film is directed by Hannah Marks who found visual ways to take us down into Aza’s spiraling thoughts and loss of control over her thoughts. This is the second well-done mental illness story I’ve seen in recent weeks. I’m glad to see filmmakers tackle this topic and make it accessible and understandable to viewers.

Aza’s best friend Daisy (Cree) accepts and loves Aza, as difficult as she is. The relationship between them is the centerpiece of the story. Aza is grieving the loss of her father and has issues with her mother (Judy Reyes).

Aza quit taking her medication. Her therapist, Dr. Singh (Poorna Jagannathan), is insistent she needs it, but can’t force her to take it.

A local billionaire disappears. There’s a $100,000 reward for info about him. Aza knows the rich guy’s son, Davis (Felix Mallard), from camp. Daisy wants to go to the mansion, use Aza’s connection to Davis, and look for clues to earn that reward.

Felix Mallard in Turtles All the Way Down

Aza had a crush on Davis from camp. When they meet again, he feels the same way. While Aza and Daisy do find clues and walk away with 100K, it happens in a very different way from what they thought.

Aza starts spending time with Davis. She wants to kiss him but the idea of his microbes entering her body absolutely terrifies her.

There’s a professor (J. Smith-Cameron) at Northwestern Aza admires. Aza watches her TED talk about microbes over and over. Davis takes her to Chicago and into the professor’s classroom. When she has a private conversation with the professor, Aza gets so excited she kisses Davis.

Aza really spirals out of control from that kiss. She drinks soap, washes her mouth compulsively. This scene and a later one that’s even more intense is so powerfully done by Isabela Merced and the director. It’s emotional and telling. Turtles All the Way Down is based on a novel by John Green. It must be difficult to describe episodes like Aza’s in words as Green did or visually as director Marks did. Kudos to them both.

The demographic for the novel and film is the YA audience. But the film is too good to appeal to just that age group. I thought it was excellent. It’s streaming on Max.

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