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‘All Together’ sweet call to help others

Moana’s voice, Cravalho takes the next step

Amber Appleton gives, gives, gives. The 17-year-old spends her free time teaching English to a group of Korean women. She visits a nursing home to hand out free doughnuts and raises money for school projects. She adopts a tiny dog and puts its needs ahead of her own.

This image released by Netflix shows Auli’l Cravalho in a scene from ‘All Together Now.’ (AP)

She makes fried egg sandwiches for friends. Amber Appleton is always helping, helping, helping. So when slowly, ever so slightly, her life starts to collapse, Amber Appleton has to learn to accept the very thing she’s always handing out: help. Have plenty of tissues nearby when you watch the top-notch Netflix film “All Together Now,” a teary tale of fellowship. The movie is based on “Silver Linings Playbook” author Matthew Quick’s novel “Sorta Like a Rock Star” and is elevated by a touching, marvelous Auli’i Cravalho as the girl who loves giving but not necessarily receiving.

Cravalho’s Amber is a musically gifted high school student with aspirations to attend Carnegie Mellon but her personal life is close to the edge: She and her single mom are homeless, sleeping in one of the school buses her mom drives for work. Amber doesn’t let it get her down. “I’m great. Never better,” she insists. Amber turns negatives into positives: “I’m the only teenager in America who doesn’t have a cell phone. How cool is that?” Mom (an excellent Justina Machado) frets about the future and considers returning to an abusive man just for the shelter, but her daughter stays optimistic: “We’re gonna be awesome. We’re gonna be spectacular.” But little by little, Amber is stripped of all the things that give her meaning and security.

A harder, darker Amber emerges. “I have this under control!” she insists, as she postpones key meetings and works long hours at dismal jobs. (Tip your doughnut shop workers, folks.) This alarms her motley crew of friends, including a maybe-boyfriend (a solid Rhenzy Feliz), her drama club teacher (an underused Fred Armisen) and a souroutside- but-sweet-underneath nursing home resident (Carol Burnett, yes, that Carol Burnett, absolutely incapable of disappointing).

“You do so much for other people, but when you need just a little bit of help, you push us all away,” says the maybe-boyfriend. “What is so bad about needing help?” There is a “Good Will Hunting” vibe to the film, a gifted young person sliding toward obscurity who is helped by the intervention of friends and colleagues. And the film may end with all the lose ends tied up into fancy bows, but its heart is pure. Director Brett Haley (“All the Bright Places,” “Hearts Beat Loud”) thankfully lets the scenes breath, with quiet poignancy. Some moments are so still you can hear a leather jacket stretch. The script also doesn’t insult the audience by adding unnecessary descriptive lines.

It helps when you have an actress like Cravalho, who allows us to see pools of sadness, yearning and hunger behind her eyes. The “Moana” singer also gets to belt out a moving tune. You couldn’t ask for more from her in her first leading role in a live action movie: She’s awesome. She’s spectacular. Actually, asking for more is at the very center of this film. The concept that allowing someone’s help is a gift to that other person is a lesson that Amber learns. If it inspires us to reach out a little more, so much the better. “All Together Now,” a Netflix release, is rated PG for thematic content, some language and brief suggestive comments. Running time: 93 minutes. Three stars out of four.

Cravalho’s life changed forever at age 14 when she was cast as the voice of Disney’s “Moana.” The Hawaiian native loved singing and acting, but they were just hobbies to her. So were horseback riding, swimming and microbiology, for that matter. A career in Hollywood seemed implausible at best. “But life decided to surprise me,” said Cravalho, who went from obscurity to performing at the Oscars in just a few months. Now at 19, Cravalho is checking off another milestone: Her first live-action film, “All Together Now,” is being released on Netfllix Friday. And once again, she’s in the lead. Based on Matthew Quick’s novel “Sorta Like a Rock Star,” the film from director Brett Haley finds Cravalho playing a very different kind of character from the adventurous Polynesian princess. Amber is a high school student with a to-die-for voice, an unfl appable optimism and a dream of going to Carnegie Mellon. She also happens to be living in a school bus with her alcoholic mother.

“This felt like the next step,” she said. “I’m a little older and I love the challenge of showing these tougher emotions and telling these deeper stories.” She’d actually auditioned for Hayley before. She didn’t get that part, but he promised he’d remember her. “I was like, sure, OK, I’m never going to hear from this guy again,” she laughed. And then Amber Appleton came along. “I really related to Amber. I genuinely I understood her optimism,” she said. “I am an optimist almost to a fault myself. I also have to kind of get real and be like, ‘Oh, wait, I can reach out and ask for help.’” Cravalho had already had some on-camera experience, including in the short-lived television show “Rise,” which was canceled after one season. (“My first heartbreak.”) But she was nervous about a feature film and acting opposite people like Carol Burnett. “My biggest challenge is figuring out what to do with my face on screen,” she said.

Thankfully, she had an unusually empathetic and supportive director in Haley, who helped her feel comfortable and gave her space to play around with her character and lines. And he’s excited for audiences to see her in a more dramatic role. “Yes, she’s optimistic. Yes, she’s bright and shiny. But she also has a depth of emotion. She really is layered. She’s not just this Disney princess,” Haley said. “I think you can see that in her performance. She goes to so many different places in the role.” Cravalho has for the past few years been living outside of Hawaii, first in New York and now in Los Angeles. She finished up high school on her laptop from the set of “Rise,” and she empathizes with all the students having to do that now.

By Mark Kennedy (AP)

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