John Green’s 2017 novel Turtles All the Way Down stands apart from some of his earlier works because it rings very personal. Like the main character, Aza Holmes, Green has obsessive-compulsive disorder. The decision to adapt the book into a movie seven years after its original release provided the opportunity to focus uniquely on mental health and bring it to a larger audience.

The film adaptation of Turtles All the Way Down, released Thursday on Max, follows a unique protagonist. Teenager Aza Holmes, portrayed by Isabela Merced, reluctantly finds herself circling the case of a missing local billionaire as she grows close to his son. The film’s true story lies within the battles between Aza and her own mind.

Aza grapples with a severe OCD that leads her down vicious thought spirals. She repeatedly pours hand sanitizer into a cut on her finger to stave off infection, among other compulsions.

The depiction of OCD, which is central to the novel, is well done throughout the film, largely due to Merced’s performance. She masters the blank yet distraught look of her character when she gets lost in a “thought spiral.”

Director Hannah Marks’ portrayal of OCD is a bit too on the nose. Throughout the film, Aza’s episodes are interspersed with sequences of internal dialogue and flashing images of bacteria across the screen.These sequences come across as largely redundant, since Merced’s performance of the lengths her character goes to to rid herself of germs makes the nature of her OCD abundantly clear.

[‘Radical Optimism’ opens new experimental paths for Dua Lipa]

Screenplay writers Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker smartly kept to the source material, crafting the characters consistent with the novel.

Cree Cicchino, who plays Aza’s best friend Daisy, and Judy Reyes, who plays Aza’s worried mother who struggles to understand her daughter’s mental illness, both add complementing performances to the film.

Aza’s OCD leads the film to a point of philosophical contemplation that is the film’s central theme. In her words, her condition is much more than the simple fear of becoming sick, even though it often manifests as such.

She fears that she is not in control of her own body or mind. She unknowingly relays this fear to her love interest as she discusses parasitic relationships in the animal kingdom that lead certain species to their deaths.

These questions of control come to a head when she visits her idol, a philosophy professor at Northwestern University portrayed by J. Smith-Cameron, known for her role in Succession.

What follows is the climax of the film, where we see Aza in her most honest and vulnerable state. The two discuss infinite regress, Aza’s fear that she’s like a nesting doll, trapped inside herself to no end.

Cameron’s character gives her a moment of reassurance and confidence that lasts for a painfully brief period before Aza spirals again.

[Smino delivers signature sound, streaming hits at Art Attack 40]

As Aza’s existentialism plagues her, the plot cleverly mirrors her quickening descent and worsening cleansing rituals. She is confronted with the realization that her inability to escape her head has made her increasingly self-centered.

Everything comes crashing down as she struggles with intimacy, autonomy, friendship and a slew of other teenage problems prevalent in Green’s work.

However, the film’s ending is rushed. Unnecessary adjustments to plot lowers the stakes from the book by resolving the mystery in a way that comes across much too vague. Marks’ team misses an opportunity to capitalize on the existentialism they escalated throughout the movie. 

The secondary plot regarding the missing enigmatic billionaire takes too much of a backseat in the film. It is present in the beginning and end, but gets lost in the middle. Still, the focus on Aza’s mental health makes for a much stronger story than one that simply follows the adventures of some colorfully personal teens.

This adaptation captures the essence of the novel, thanks to a strong performance from Merced and well-executed pieces of dialogue.

Questions about free will, fate and control are central to the film. The creators make the case that Aza is much more than a germaphobe she is someone incapable of living outside of intrusive thoughts. The filmmakers wisely spare no severity when it comes to portraying her condition.