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'The Sky is Everywhere' portrays grief through color, music and magic

KELSEY SNELL, HOST:

"The Sky Is Everywhere" is a colorful, musical, illustrative movie about grief and loss.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE")

GRACE KAUFMAN: (As Lennie) Grief is a house that blows into the air at the slightest gust.

SNELL: In the film, Lennie, played by Grace Kaufman, suddenly loses her big sister Bailey to a heart arrhythmia.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE")

KAUFMAN: (As Lennie) This is a house with a younger sister who grows older than the older one.

SNELL: The film follows Lennie as she tries to navigate her sister's death while juggling school, a potential audition that could land her in Juilliard and falling in love for the first time. Grace Kaufman plays Lennie, and she joins us now. Welcome.

KAUFMAN: Thank you so much for having me.

SNELL: So this is a strange thing to say, but this movie about death and coping is really beautiful and enchanting, which really isn't how I would always describe a film about loss. What drew you to this character?

KAUFMAN: Yeah. I think that this movie has such a sense of duality with these two different huge emotions that are kind of, like, very extreme, especially for a teenager. That's kind of what drew me to the film initially. And when I first got to read the script, Jandy Nelson's just beautiful use of imagery and magical realism, as well - it was just all these amazing components that just totally enthralled me, and I knew that this was a part that I just desperately wanted to play.

SNELL: Yeah, you mentioned Jandy Nelson. This was a very popular young adult book before it was a film. I'm wondering if you felt pressure to kind of portray Lennie in a specific way, since so many readers probably had a version of Lennie already in their imaginations?

KAUFMAN: Right. I think what's so amazing is that Josephine Decker is just...

SNELL: Josephine Decker is the director of the film.

KAUFMAN: ...She's so amazing at what she does, and she really made the set experience into this just warm, welcoming, safe place where, like, we could feel the freedom to be as creative as we wanted. And just I was able to make Lennie my own and just kind of interpret, you know, her story and her feelings maybe as I would and intertwine some of my own experiences and my own emotions with hers, even though she's been just, like, this beloved character for so many people for, like, many years.

SNELL: You know, we should say that Lennie is in high school in this film, and being in high school is in and of itself kind of a messy time. And Lennie is also going through all of this grief, which is its own very messy process. How is Lennie figuring out the way through this loss of her sister Bailey?

KAUFMAN: You know, she starts off being really closed off and feeling just so isolated in these feelings of loss and missing her sister and feeling like she has no one. But then from there, she begins to make connections with other people and experiencing first love. The film is also a celebration of life, too, and I think that I put myself in Lennie's shoes and kind of imagined this idea that, like, when you lose someone, I think the person that you lose would want you to continue to live and be happy and just be in life.

SNELL: But even that process is complicated in a lot of ways for Lennie. We meet...

KAUFMAN: It is. It's really complicated (laughter). Yes, it's a lot going on. This poor girl...

SNELL: I mean, we meet Toby Shaw, who was the boyfriend of her sister, Bailey, and he's also deeply mourning. And I thought this was really interesting because the line between grief and love gets really blurry for Lennie and Toby. Can you talk a little bit more about their relationship?

KAUFMAN: I think when they kind of spark this connection, it's so vital to the story because they both feel so seen by one another. Toby has this line - or, well, Lennie says, you know, I don't think anybody at school gets it. And he says, you know, I don't think it's possible to get it unless you're in it like we are.

SNELL: If Toby is kind of a tie back to Bailey, there's an opportunity to look forward for Lennie, too. There's this new boy at school named Joe Fontaine, who's in band with Lennie, and she's totally smitten. But he's meeting her at this time where her emotions are super raw and complicated. So what were you thinking as you imagined this moment for her?

KAUFMAN: The experience of first love is just so overwhelming and powerful and, like, just a shock to the system and - but also, like, Lennie's imagination and her emotions are just, like, so emphasized and made so much bigger. So, like, this idea that when she sees him playing the trumpet for the first time, she's not just like standing there breathless, but the entire hallway of students is breathless and falling over each other and just swooning with her...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE")

KAUFMAN: ...It was amazing. And I think that that's the first bit of, like, just joy that she feels because I think she convinces herself that she's never going to be able to feel feelings of joy again.

SNELL: I'm glad that you bring that up - that moment in the hallway - because we literally get to see Lennie's emotions come alive a lot of times in this film. So what was it like to film those magical moments that really just came to life not in front of you but in post-production?

KAUFMAN: Yeah. I mean, seeing it as part of the finished product was crazy because, like, even though I was there...

SNELL: It's whole new film.

KAUFMAN: ...It's a whole new film. I, like - oh, man, I was just reliving everything, but it was entirely different. I think they heightened the entire experience because there was, like, this literal magic that was being portrayed but that you could actually feel. Like, you could physically, like, feel it in the atmosphere on set.

SNELL: I wonder, what do you hope that people learn from this story? What do you want people to take away from such an immersive experience?

KAUFMAN: I think the beauty that because it is such an immersive experience, it's like, I love that it can be interpreted so many different ways. I really hope that people can relate, and they can maybe find bits and pieces of themselves in the characters. I hope it gives them comfort. I hope it makes people feel maybe a little less alone because yeah, grief and loss are universal feelings. Those are universal things that everybody goes through. So nobody's alone in that.

SNELL: That's Grace Kaufman, who plays Lennie in the new film "The Sky Is Everywhere," streaming on Apple TV+ and showing in select theaters nationwide. Thanks for talking with us.

KAUFMAN: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.