Michael Leppert: John Green’s ‘Turtles All the Way Down’ is required viewing in Indy

Michael Leppert

If one wants to be a homer in Indianapolis, there’s no better time of year for it than May. This year, the Pacers have rejuvenated their playoff rivalry with the Knicks, Caitlin Clark has come to town, and the Greatest Spectacle in Racing is almost here.

And one more thing this May: the movie adaptation of John Green’s 2017 novel, “Turtles All the Way Down,” was released on Max. It’s one of my favorite books, the only one I ever read twice, written by Indy’s greatest author since Kurt Vonnegut. As a bonus, it’s set here in the city. Yeah, yeah, I know it was filmed in Cincinnati, but that’s another column for another time.

The story chronicles the mental health struggles of a teenager named Aza Holmes. She was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder and suffered the loss of her father who died unexpectedly, both when she was a little girl. She and her mom, who teaches at Aza’s high school, are consumed by these two life challenges.

It’s just another story really. The primary themes are relatable because of how often they exist in normal people’s lives. Normal. Aza would kill to feel like what she believes is normal. But her OCD drives her into “thought spirals,” revolving around the micro-organisms and their function inside her body. We casually refer to people as “germophobic” often these days, and more so since COVID-19. Aza would call most of these people “normal” too. The intensity of her fears is far more profound and dangerous. And still, her condition and her life are not rare.

The value of any story is often how it reminds us that we are not alone in whatever it is we face. Stories have a better chance of being meaningful when the audience can connect to the characters, their challenges or their aspirations.

“Turtles” is actually an important story that I believe everyone should consume. As a true John Green fan, I was going to read it and watch it regardless of its setting. But being set in Indy gives Hoosiers one more point of connection, one more reason, to learn the important part of the story: how OCD actually works.

Jack Nicholson won an Academy Award for his 1997 portrayal of Melvin Udall, a novelist suffering from OCD in “As Good as It Gets.” Jennifer Lawrence won the hardware for her performance in 2012’s, “Silver Linings Playbook,” a film full of characters with mental health diagnoses, including one with OCD, played by Robert DeNiro in a supporting role.

But those stories were based in New York and Philadelphia respectively, and while they are on my list of all-time favorite movies, they aren’t from, and at least a little about, my hometown.

I’m not just a Green fan because I’m a homer though. I fell in love with his writing after I saw another Indy-based movie, “The Fault in Our Stars.” I had never heard of Green until then, but vividly recall saying to my sobbing wife after we watched it, “whoever wrote that dialogue is a genius.” So, I immediately read all of Green’s other books.

In my opinion, no one writes conversations better than him. No one. It’s Green’s real talent and it’s also how his audiences can feel his stories deeply enough to be moved into truly learning the story’s purpose.

I teach practical applications of connecting to audiences to students who are only a little older than Aza Holmes. One of her primary challenges in “Turtles” is that she wants to be defined by more than just her disorder. Her diagnosis is the audience’s “single story” about Aza. But there is more to her than that.

I share a lesson from Nigerian-born author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on this topic with my classes that teaches how to overcome seeing people so simply. Adiche’s broader method of connecting and understanding others enriches the simplest of interpretations about people. And it differentiates “Turtles” from being a story many might see as just another young adult book and movie.

People are more like infinity than we often presume. This message is dramatically received through the character, Lucia Abbott, a philosophy professor at Northwestern University. Aza is a fan of the professor, primarily because she speaks what Aza believes is her own, private, personal language.

“Turtles All the Way Down” is not just a meaningless way to kill two hours in front of a screen or seven or eight hours in front of a book. It’s a story that matters. It’s a vehicle for elevated understanding about something we all really ought to know.

If being a homer for Indianapolis is what inspires you to watch it, you can thank me later.

Michael Leppert is an author, educator and a communication consultant in Indianapolis. He writes about government, politics and culture at MichaelLeppert.com. This commentary was previously published at indianacapitalchronicle.com. Send comments to [email protected].