There is a particular skill in presenting a character who is nearly flawless without turning her into a staid saint. In Brett Haley’s sweet and scrappy teen Netflix drama “All Together Now,” Amber Appleton (Auliʻi Cravalho) checks so many boxes of trait perfection (she volunteers at a retirement community, teaches E.S.L. classes, etc.) that a worse film would become a hagiography. But Haley’s directing has a gentility, and Cravalho (who was introduced to movie audiences as the title voice in Disney’s “Moana”) gives Amber a visceral humanity that elevates the intermittently uneven screenplay.
Amber’s lightness and joy are necessary survival tactics as she and her mother, Becky (Justina Machado), struggle to pull together finances for an apartment after escaping Becky’s abusive boyfriend. Machado and Cravalho are beautiful complements to one another as screen partners. They are inversions of the other’s personality, their way of negotiating their tough circumstances different but borne of the same core resilience. Through turmoil, Amber shares poetry with her mother and sings music her late father wrote.
Haley is familiar with using music as a salve in trauma, having directed the lovely drama “Hearts Beat Loud,” where a widower and his daughter bond by writing songs together. Amber’s ambition to study music at Carnegie Mellon University, her father’s alma mater, is complicated by her sense of obligation to her mother. When Cravalho sings in the movie, her star presence is hard to ignore. She performs as if her full-of-hope heart might burst, cementing her magnetism as a performer. The movie’s familiar suggestion of music as a light in the darkness works primarily because its star shines so brightly.
All Together Now
Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 32 minutes. Watch on Netflix.