Young Adult authors Rachel Cohn and David Levithan are perhaps best known as a writing duo for their 2006 novel Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, a story about great music and new love for a couple of recently-heartbroken teens. The joy of collaboration clearly didn’t wear off, as they’ve written two similar books since — 2008’s Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List, and 2010’s Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares. Last year, the film adaptation of Naomi and Ely premiered at the Outfest Film Festival before hitting Netflix two months later. As someone who hadn’t read the book since high school, I decided to revisit it and see how the two versions stacked up against each other.
First things first: the basic plot of Naomi and Ely centers around the titular BFFs, who are happily attached at the hip until Ely kisses Naomi’s boyfriend Bruce. What follows is a falling out of truly epic proportions: the rest of the story is 65% about Naomi and Ely’s individual journeys and 35% about the ripple effect their platonic breakup has on the petri dish of their NYC social circle. In book form, it’s heartbreaking and honest and funny and nuanced. If I had to choose just one, I’d say the quality Cohn and Levithan are most skilled at in their writing is intimacy — as a reader, you feel so involved with every character’s emotional state, motivations, and moments of clarity in the middle of all the confused angst. I sympathize with the writers and directors who’ve had to adapt these authors’ works for the screen because it’s always difficult to convey that level of internal complexity without a narrator directly laying out all the details. It’s a highly inexact science.
That being said, how does the film pull off the messy-by-design intricacies of its source material? My personal opinion is that, while it’s not without flaws, the adaptation is light, loyal, and full of heart. It certainly excels visually: Anka Malatynska’s cinematography is beautifully colorful and engaging as it follows the characters through New York with loving detail. The music, soundtracked by Deborah Lurie, is also very thoughtful. In this film, sound and silence alike are placed with careful precision; Naomi and Ely’s first real fight halfway through the film is supported by edgy, angry guitars, while later conflicts are left to quietly stand on their own.
The cast is a real highlight, too — Victoria Justice is a great Naomi. She gets the frustration, sadness, and fear inherent to the character as much as the external confidence and snark. Pierson Fode’s Ely is equally conflicted and cool; they play off of each other in a way that lets you genuinely feel the history between these characters and the enormity of how they feel about each other. The supporting cast behind them is also super charming (personally, I really enjoyed seeing a post-High School Musical Monique Coleman as Naomi’s sole female friend Robin). My singular complaint has to do with Naomi’s love interest Gabriel; he’s of mixed race in the book but played by Matthew Daddario. The continued presence of whitewashing in Hollywood is frustrating, to say the least, and it sucks that yet another film has fallen in line with the practice.
In terms of Naomi and Ely‘s story and themes, the movie is faithful to the concept of a complicated friendship requiring as much sensitivity and effort as a romantic relationship, which is great. It also has a solid, layered grasp on the characters, particularly Naomi; both versions of the character include a need to resolve not only her conflict with Ely but the distant relationship with her depressed post-divorce mother. However, Ely’s arc took a hit during the adaptation process. In the book, his relationship with Bruce is a key part of his development as the two boys struggle to figure out how they can fit together. Most of that storyline is cut from the movie, and I’m not entirely sure why. Time constraints are often the reason for these things, but the finished film is only ninety minutes; I think that there could have been more room for the Ely/Bruce relationship without making the plot feel busy or cluttered. Without it, Bruce’s character ends up feeling like something of an afterthought, an excuse for Naomi and Ely’s fight to happen. It’s a strange choice that I don’t entirely get.
Despite all this, the movie version remains a strong hour-and-a-half of young adult yearning between two people who are trying to coexist in the middle of personal upheavals. It’s got a joyful, vibrant energy to it, even when the characters are miserable, and it feels human, which is always the most important thing. While the book’s format was always going to have certain advantages that allow it to be brighter and more incisive, there are much worse things for a big-screen rendition to be than simultaneously funny, affecting, and satisfying. I’m calling this one a win — here’s to this tale about the meaning of love, no matter what medium it exists in.