Binge-r #129: PEN15 + Isn't it Romantic
Streaming Service: Stan
Availability: All 10 episodes now streaming
At first the creative conceit of this American comedy is silly: 31-year-old comic actors and the show’s co-creators, Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, play 13-year-old Maya and Anna, best friends with braces starting high school in the year of our lord (more specifically Jonathan Taylor Thomas) 2000. Even though the duo’s performances have the awkward physicality, hormonal whiplash, and rash judgments of adolescence, you think there’s a safe distance to what will transpire. That lasts all of a few minutes into the first episode, when Maya is voted UGIS (Ugliest Girl in the School) by the boys and aspiring mean girls take aim. The comic cruelty makes the oversized women disappear into their roles, and you realise that the flipside is we carry those still raw scars from turning 13 with us today.
For the rest of this series, the sweet tug of nostalgia is constantly sabotaged by the vicissitudes of being a child blundering into adulthood. “I wouldn’t put that on a milk carton,” says a mother of photographs the pair provide for an amateur fashion show, and the setbacks have a blackly comic everyday banality that makes the resilience of Maya and Anna close to triumphant. They obsess over boys who are blank slates, worry about their families, reassure each other about their status, and when all else fails just flat out lie about how bad the situation is. One of the smartest takes the show has is not to make the pair saints – not only do they screw up, but when they have a position of social authority over another 13-year-old they casually pass on as good as they got.
Some of the period detail, such as Maya getting in over her head when the pair discover dial-up internet chatroom or an illicit viewing of the erotic thriller Wild Things, is tied to the era, but what these half hour episodes emphasise is how extreme being a 13-year-old girl is: Maya is playing with dolls when she discovers masturbation, while first kisses and menstruation only add to the wild weight they have to carry. Clever direction often adds a sepulchral hum or ominous horror movie tone to the plots, exacerbating the strange suburban tone of these scenarios. The biggest risk stems from when they hide the truth from each other, because whatever the age the very funny PEN15 is a heartfelt homage to female friendship.
>> Old Show/New Season: One of the best new shows of 2018, SBS on Demand’s parallel worlds espionage thriller Counterpart, has a second season now available. It’s a compelling examination of otherness and self-deception – so many of the lies told stem from tragic shortcomings. If you haven’t seen it, start with my endorsement of the first season [full review here] and get watching.
NEWLY ADDED MOVIES
Isn’t it Romantic (Netflix, 2019, 88 minutes): Wise to the ways of peak Hollywood romantic comedy – i.e. the reign of Julia Roberts and her miraculous smile – this glossy, easy target satire stars Rebel Wilson as Natalie, a New York architect (she even has the clichéd drawing board) who has turned on the genre. But as soon as she lists the many deceptions of happy ever after movies, Natalie is knocked out and comes to in a backlot beautiful world run on the rules she abhors: she’s perfectly made up, her apartment is enormous, and she has a gay best friend, Donny (Brandon Scott James), who magically appears to offer camp affirmation. It’s “The Matrix for lonely women,” says Natalie, one of the few laugh out loud lines in Todd Strauss Schulson’s film. While dealing with an enraptured tycoon, Blake (Liam Hemsworth, a dab hand at silliness), Natalie tries to game the PG-rated system to get back home. But the humour suffers for making Wilson, so often a convulsive comic force, the straight lady to the wackiness, but more importantly the further it progresses the more it becomes an actual romantic comedy. Resistance, it turns out, is futile.
New on Netflix: Self-destruction gets a literally monstrous reflection in the brilliant Colossal (2016, 109 minutes) where Anne Hathaway plays a dispirited drinker who must save Seoul and herself from the spectre of domineering control; God’s Own Country (2017, 104 minutes) is a harsh but ultimately thrilling gay romance between a closeted Yorkshire farmer and a Romanian farmhand where the landscape and heart are inextricably entwined.
New on SBS on Demand: Opposites find mutual allegiance in the British comic-drama Pride (2014, 115 minutes), where 1980s London LGBT activists visit striking Welsh coal miners to offer their support. The dependable cast skirting clichés include Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, and Dominic West.
New on Stan: Solo (2018, 130 minutes) continues Stan’s repping of the Disney’s blockbusters, offering up the early years of the Star Wars icon as a heist origin film with an enjoyably forgettable story; a discursive neo-noir about Gary Oldman’s crooked cop, Annabella Sciorra’s wife, and Lena Olin’s contract killer, Romeo is Bleeding (1994, 110 minutes) is an idiosyncratic thriller rifled through with black humour.
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