'All Together Now': Cravalho awesome in live-action leading role debut

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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. 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?"

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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."

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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 sour-outside-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?"

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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.


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