There was very little hoopla and almost no fanfare before its debut. At best, it was getting buzz as a Winona Ryder comeback vehicle. But after Netflix dropped its 8-part series STRANGER THINGS on the American public on July 15th, it became a phenomenon. (Its ginormous success has created a desperate demand for a second season.) And in a summer when one tentpole after another disappointed at the Cineplex box office, this unassuming show became the escapist entertainment we were all truly hungering for. Amazingly, it snatched that mantel while thumbing its nose at three major conventions of Hollywood.
You see, according to those who run the studios, approve the scripts, or assume the role of all-knowing producer, period pieces are supposed to be a tough sell because modern audiences can’t relate to them, yet here is STRANGER THINGS taking place in a time period over three decades ago. And for genre pieces, like horror or sci-fi, the rule of thumb is to cast men as your heroes driving the narrative, all the better to appeal to the fanboy base, yet the three main female characters in STRANGER THINGS are the ones who take charge here. And anyone who’s been in Hollywood two minutes is supposed to know that you never have a lead in a project who’s an adolescent, unless it’s for a kid’s movie or a Disney property. Yet STRANGER THINGS had the audacity to center its story around three boys and one girl, all 12. So not only has the show become a huge hit, creating water cooler talk like few others in 2016, but it seems to be giving the finger to “Hollywood by-laws” at the same time. (Veteran screenwriter William Goldman was truly correct when he made the assertion that no one in Hollywood knows anything.)
|Caleb McLaughlin, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown and Gaten Matarazzo in STRANGER THINGS.|
In particular, it’s amazing that a series like STRANGER THINGS has pre-teen leads because it is not aimed at that audience. This is adult fare, with big themes about parenting, conformity and even class warfare. And while it touches on youthful items like Dungeons and Dragons games and first crushes, it spends the majority of its time dealing with themes of death, divorce, and conspiracy. (The “Big Bad” here is a local science lab full of overreaching defense department types more than willing to sacrifice the citizenry in the name of the greater good of fighting the Big Red Scare.) STRANGER THINGS is definitely not kid’s stuff, despite the young boys and girl at the center of its story.
Maybe such unusual juxtaposition is why it has resonated so well with audiences. It’s familiar, yes, what with its 80’s nostalgia that cleverly references fashion, synthesizer music, Stephen King, Steven Spielberg and Eggo frozen waffles with relish. But more importantly, it serves all of what was known from that era with different and daring storytelling. Lead characters that are adolescent in an adult-themed horror tale? You can’t get much more novel than that. Stranger things, indeed.
The show takes place in 1983 in the sleepy town of Hawkins, Indiana. The sleepy burg suddenly becomes a hot bed of intrigue when 12-year-old Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) goes missing in the local woods. His mother, Joyce (Winona Ryder) becomes frantic and the town police, including morose chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour), start an investigation but have little to go on. Will’s best friends – Mike Wheeler, Dustin Henderson and Lucas Sinclair – start their own investigation and they make just as many inroads as the professionals. (The three boys are played by Finn Wolfhard, Gaten Matarazzo and Caleb McLaughlin, respectively, and they are all fantastic.)
|Winona Ryder as Joyce in STRANGER THINGS.|
Then they discover a strange girl loitering in those same woods. She’s dressed in a hospital gown, has short cropped hair (they think she has cancer!), and speaks very little. To them, she’s almost an alien, not only because these kids are not ready in any way to comprehend girls, but also because she can do things not of this world with her amazing ESP powers and ability to move things. Just how she came to be so unusual is suggested, without fully explained, but she escaped the treacherous science lab because they were trying to turn her into some sort of Commie-killing super soldier.
The girl calls herself Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and informs them of her escape, and that the lab holds the key to Will’s whereabouts. In many ways, the government property is the haunted house in this story, as it holds all kinds of secrets with Eleven being just one of them. As she helps the boys realize that the lab is the key to this “otherworld” where she senses Will has been transported to, Eleven becomes their reluctant ally. Ultimately, she will become the most crucial character in the piece, bringing all the investigations together and solving the puzzle at the heart of the strange things going on in Hawkins.
|Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven in STRANGER THINGS.|
Eleven is not only the best character in the show, but a valiant rebuke of female clichés that too often permeate Tinsel Town. She’s sullen, gawky, and decidedly boyish - hardly a Hanna Montana for a new generation. Indeed, she is very alien to those in the story as well as audiences watching anything that comes out of Hollywood. And as an ‘alien’ she is presented without the cuddle factor of an E.T. At one point, the boys even dress her up in a similar fashion as Spielberg’s most famous extra-terrestrial did when donning the blonde wig and dress. They think it will help disguise Eleven from the authorities looking for her, but what it really does is thumb its nose as Hollywood conformity. The blonde wig does nothing for her, and makes her even more ill at ease. Eleven will not play by society’s silly rules about what a girl should be. She doesn't wear it long and walks around the rest of the series in her dirty dress and Jean Seberg pixie.
And just as bold is how Brown plays her. She never adopts even a smidge of coquettish behavior. Her face doesn’t play cute. Instead it shows every expression but that as it registers pain, concern, fear and contempt in ways that brush up to Maria Falconetti’s landmark silent movie performance in THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC in 1928. (Is that intentional here? Could be.) The performance and character sends a great message to everyone watching, especially female viewers. It defies the grotesque and outdate girlie characters that Hollywood still throws at us en masse, and all but renders Margot Robbie’s gum-popping, bad girl Playmate performance in the SUICIDE SQUAD movie DOA before it’s even opened.
|Natalia Dyer as Nancy in STRANGER THINGS.|
Ultimately, Eleven becomes the true hero of this brat pack, saving them from vicious school bullies, and a few serious near-death scenarios too. STRANGER THINGS would be exceptional if she was the only female character in such a position, but the series assigns such authority and responsibility to its two other major female characters as well. Mom Joyce is like a dog with a bone throughout, pushing, prodding, and all but ordering the policemen to grow a pair and find her son. And then there’s Nancy (Natalia Dyer), Mike’s older teen sister. She starts out as a 16-year-old interested in cliques, trysting with her boyfriend Steve (Joe Keery), and being the cool girl in trendy cowl necks. But as her friend Barbara (Shannon Purser) goes missing as well, Nancy’s character arc kicks into high gear. She not only becomes a more serious and caring character, but she starts driving the third investigation at hand. Nancy joins forces with Joyce’s older son Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), and even drags the reluctant Steve into the hunt.
How ironic that in a summer when the best bone that Hollywood movies has thrown female empowerment is a kick-ass WONDER WOMAN trailer, this “little series that could” shows how it should be done. Eleven, Joyce, and Nancy each lead their charge, and they triumph too. Ad none of them are in positions of authority. To be so strong and assertive in most Hollywood fare, such female characters would have to have a badge. Not here.
That might be the only truly obvious part of the series. But the rest of STRANGER THINGS is fresh, fun and distinctively daring. What could have been merely a good yarn about a monster that took place in the 80’s is given so much heft by the daring choices and depth that its brilliant creators Matt and Ross Duffer infuse it with at every turn. And all of that makes it the best entertainment this summer, as well as one of the highlights of 2016. Perhaps the show should really be called AUDACIOUS THINGS.