“Looking for Alaska” is a new eight-part mini-series, adapted from the popular novel by John Green. Green’s work has been a bit of a commodity after the success of “The Fault in Our Stars” but none of the subsequent adaptations have been able to recapture lightening in a bottle the way “The Fault in Our Stars” did.
“Looking for Alaska” is the latest adaptation of Green’s work and the first to present itself as a mini-series. The show very clearly comes from Green’s mind and follows a group of teenagers through the formative years of their lives, where everything can change in an instant. Green’s work, flaws and all, never feels like they are speaking for a generation but showing an understanding and empathy of what they are going through.
Charlie Plummer stars as Miles, a teenager who doesn’t have very many friends and is fascinated by the last words of famous poets, authors and thinkers. He can often recite them verbatim, which really seems to function as a personality trait of a YA character. Miles knows he is different than his peers, so he convinces his parents to send him to Culver Creek Academy, a boarding school in Alabama. He meets Chip (Denny Love), nicknamed “The Colonel,” and Takumi (Jay Lee), when he arrives at the school, and the three form a fast friendship.
Miles is immediately beguiled by Alaska (Kristine Forseth), a transfixing member of the friend group, who speaks with great confidence about her beliefs and ideologies. His interest in girls seems to still be growing and evolving but Alaska becomes a puzzle box of a human being he’s completely drawn to. As it is custom for YA novels and their adaptations, Alaska becomes the driving force through the main character’s actions.
The first few episodes of “Looking for Alaska” are languidly paced as the story develops and creates the bond between the main quartet of characters. It feels uneventful at times, and even a bit repetitive as the characters engage in prank wars with other students. The pacing feels purposeful as these friendships blossom. The heart of the story isn’t about a central romance but about the friendships. “Looking for Alaska” feels authentic in its depiction of turbulent teenage camaraderie. Miles, Chip, Takumi and Alaska are fiercely protective of each other but disagreements and fights threaten their bond. It’s the way the friends rally in the face of their fights that make their friendships feel real.
Plummer is the most recognizable of the cast, anchoring the series each step of the way. He has a way of expressing so much without saying anything at all. He has mastered a way of internalizing his characters without making them feel elusive or unobtainable to an audience. Plummer did so last year with his terrific performance in the underseen “Lean on Pete” and brings similar shadings to the role of Miles. Forseth lights up the screen in a breakout role, offering vulnerability, strength and an enigmatic presence as Alaska. Whenever the story runs the risk of reducing Alaska to a plot device, as Green’s female characters have tended to do, her performance rises above.
The show, adapted by Josh Schwartz, incorporates a great deal of drama and teenage-centric issues as it progresses. Sometimes, the drama is undercut by the relaxed nature of the series and its buttery, calming cinematography but “Looking for Alaska” keeps its focus on its characters as the beating heart of the show. In the end, it’s nice to see a series about genuine friendship.