Back in June, I was able to review “The BFG” from Steven Spielberg. After seeing “BFG,” I realized that directors trying to do their own “Spielberg-ian” films have not impressed me for some time. Whether it had been J.J. Abrams, Christopher Nolan, or Jeff Nichols, I continuously felt let down. At one point, I concluded that nobody but Spielberg is the lone auteur capable of telling films in this aesthetic.
With that said, it’s time for me to eat crow. Apparently, The Duffer Brothers waited until after I made that call to release the energetic and nostalgic ride “Stranger Things.” The series, released by Netflix, is one part homage, one part sci-f, and one part mystery. The combination of the three create a show that is visually engaging at almost every turn. Given the recent push for nostalgia based properties, something like “Stranger Things” was always going to exist. However, The Duffers clearly understand what makes this properties beloved, delivering a rich original story that takes place in Anytown, USA.
“Stranger Things” follows the inhabitants of Hawkins, Indiana after a boy, Will Byers, goes missing. The series follows several groups as they investigate the strange occurances in their town, with each investigation leading to odd places. The missing boy’s family struggle to comprehend what to do in the aftermath of Will’s disappearance. His mother, Joyce, seems to have a mental breakdown, while his brother Jonathan places the blame on himself. Will’s friends, Dustin, Mike, and Lucas, search for their friend. Instead, they find a mysterious girl gifted with telekinesis. Meanwhile, Mike’s older sister, Nancy, struggles with the disappearance of her own friend and a love triangle that includes Will’s brother. My favorite character to follow was the town sheriff, Chief Jim Hooper, who is attempting to balance the search for Will with his own personal demons.
With so many characters, you would think that weak links would exist in terms of performances. However, the show is chalked full of amazing performances from even tertiary characters. The show features a huge return to form for Winona Ryder as Joyce Byers, the mother looking for her child. It is an extremely emotionally fulfilling performance that the show sprints to catch up to. While it first feels like she cranked up her performance to an 11 as soon as the show begins, it’s clear that she only hit about a 6 on her personal scale. It’s good to have Ryder back, and if this show is any indication, she’s coming back with something to prove.
The breakout star of show will be Hooper, played brilliantly by David Harbour. Harbour balances about 20 emotions in any given episode, but does so with an awareness of his own flaws. There’s a moment about halfway through the series where a call to his ex-wife turns into one of the most character informing scenes in television in 2016. He is a broken man, but even broken men can find their redemption in this world.
The rest of the cast crushes their roles as well. I’d be remiss to not shout out Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven, who is says a lot in few words. Brown’s ability to emote through eye contact is a tough one to master, and the young actress shows a lot of promise. The trio of Finn Wolfhard, Gaten Matarazzo, and Caleb McLaughlin are standouts of the season. The three of them are able to deliver some of the best performances through the show. I particularly loved McLaughlin’s work as Lucas. He is able to embody the role of an outcast, something that the Duffer’s seem to have intentionally delivered by making him the only person of color in the core cast. His ability to showcase raw emotion and remain grounded simultaneously was impressive, especially for a child actor.
The Duffers also utilize an extremely balanced style of storytelling throughout the show. If you want to watch the show with kids, they can instantly connect to Mike and his friends. If you want an adult story, the parents and Hooper delve into the emotional heart of the story. There’s nuance within each character, which made it easy to shift allegiances at any given moment. At it’s core, the show is also a Stephen King story, which should be enticing to fans of horror and mystery.
What I think is the most enjoyable element of “Stranger Things” is the use of nostalgia. I will admit, at times the use of nostalgia based imagery takes away from the story being told. At other times, the nostalgia works as a shorthand to deliver information to the audience about the characters on screen. For example, the “weird” boys cover their rooms with posters of “Evil Dead,” and John Carpenter’s “The Thing.” For fans of 1980s cinema, shot after shot in the film will give you flashbacks to your favorite movies. There’s elements of “Stand By Me,” and “Nightmare on Elm Street” are featured prominently throughout the show. The shot composition pays homage to “E.T.” “Firestarter” and “The Goonies.”
The music composition and use in the film perfectly embodies the period as well. The boys listen to music from The Clash, Joy Division, and New Order. When teenagers are together, they listen to Toto and Modern English. Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” comes through in the first episode, reminding the audience we’ve only just started the mystery. An excellent score composed by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein anchors many music moments. The show utilizes their an eerie synthesizer based score to Carpenter-esque perfection in order to heighten the emotions running through the scenes.
Overall, the series is superbly acted, shot, and pieced together. It has twists and turns throughout, and is an excellent example of “poppy” summer TV. That said, there are certainly elements that can use improvement. Some moments are a little telegraphed to the audience. The CGI work on the “Upside Down” could have been a little better at times. It’s probably the show of the summer, but this has as much to do with the fumbling of “UnReal” Season 2 and the darkness of “The Night Of.” Rather than coming in with expectations, “Stranger Things” seized the moment and became the most talked about show of the summer. It’s an amazing work that makes me rethink my declaration regarding Spielbergian storytelling. It’s a must watch, and definitely a show I’m hoping to continue watching in the future.
What do you think? How did you like “Stranger Things?” Let us know in the comments below!