Stranger Things (2016)

Stranger ThingsI’ve been away for awhile, and I meant to write this one up before I left, but I didn’t. So, let’s talk about Stranger Things and pretend like I never left.

When a young boy disappears, his mother, a police chief, and his friends must confront terrifying forces in order to get him back.

Wow. Wow. Wow.

Quick background to start things off, Stranger things is a Netflix exclusive series created by Matt and Ross Duffer (collectively credited as The Duffer Brothers), who previously worked on a movie called Hidden which I now will absolutely need to check out, and before that their credits are limited to short films. To call this a meteoric rise would be an understatement, because they have rocketed to being the minds behind the most talked about show of 2016; which is an honor they wholly deserve by the way.

It’s not often that a show offers so much to get enthusiastic about. Even shows that I have a lot of love for, like Outcast, only offer so much. Stranger Things, however, is the total package; combining elements of horror, science fiction, and even coming of age stories into an 80’s period piece. The show is so perfectly respectful and accurate to all of those genres and periods, while feeling like something entirely unique at the same time. It’s worth saying, right at the top here, that if you haven’t taken the time to watch this series, then you need to stop reading this (or any other) review, and go binge the series on Netflix as soon as possible.

Moving on, let’s talk about what works so well about this show. The first thing that hit perfectly was the cast; it’s hard to find child actors who will, not only, give strong performances, but who also manage to be funny and charming at the same time. The kids in Stranger Things are some of the best young actors I’ve seen in quite some time, essentially everything that Super 8 was hoping for, and so much more. We are introduced to our main cast of heroes, after a creepy and strong opening scene (and the best theme song a TV show has had in years), sitting in their basement playing Dungeons & Dragons. The kids are portrayed by Noel Schnapp, who plays Will, Finn Wolfhard, Mike, Caleb McLaughlin, Lucas, and, my favourite, Gaten Matarazzo, who is a hugely funny comedic presence in the show. Will gives a great performance in this first episode, where he ultimately ends up going missing and setting the story in motion. He is absent for much of the show, being trapped in the “Upside Down”, though he is good in his brief flashback scenes.

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Where the real credit needs to go is to Millie Bobby Brown, who plays Eleven, the telekinetic girl who finds her way into the ranks of the young boys as they search for their friends. Her character is complex, emotional, and the role is extremely demanding. Brown is absolutely stunning in the role, and there is so much coming her way in the future, I just can’t wait to see what it is. These characters make up one of the three primary plots of the series, and it is definitely the most engaging, tense, and stressful, with a shadowy organization on the tail of these kids, and their characters being children, who solve or attempt to solve problems in believable ways. They feel like kids, not kid-actors-who-are-written-as-mini-adults, which seems to be the go-to for child characters.

There are two other plots to the show, the three of them are too substantial to consider “sub” as they essentially get equal screen time, all three are focused on finding Will, and even though they have this common goal, they manage to have hugely unique and interesting journeys. The first, and only adult-led of the three, featured Winona Ryder (Beetlejuice), as Will’s mother Joyce, and David Harbour (Suicide Squad), as Jim.  While both are great, Ryder is an absolute revelation in Stranger Things. Her character is deeply flawed, and makes bizarre and poor choices, but ultimately she loves her children and becomes consumed by the search. Her performance is great, and everything she does fits with her character; it’s a strong performance that I hope relaunches Ryder into more films and television.

The third and final story features Will’s brother, Johnathan, played by Charlie Heaton, the older sister of Mike, Nancy, played by Natalia Dyer, and Nancy’s boyfriend Steve, Joe Keery. The actors are great, and they add an interesting dynamic to the show. You have the children, being children, and trying to rescue their friends, the adults, and then this middle group of teenagers. You have all ages represented, and get to experience the emotional situation, their problem solving, and the drama that fills all of their lives. All of these characters feel real, and are expertly portrayed by the actors. They have great character arcs, even if some are a bit more … rushed than others (*ahem* Steve *ahem*).

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It’s easy to say that this show is for people who love 80’s horror, or who grew up in the 80’s, but it really is so much more inclusive than that. If you’re a horror fan, there are enough references and genuinely creepy moments here to keep you satisfied. For you sci-fi types, you’ve got enough alien/dimensional/government conspiracy stuff happening to keep you entertained, and even for those of you who just like a good mystery or a good coming of age story will find something here. It’s funny, earnest, scary, and tense. I watched the show with my partner, who doesn’t care for horror at all really, and she was just as hooked as I was.

The story is simple, and at times can be a bit frustrating, but there’s nothing about it that detracts from the experience as a whole. The issues that I may have had with the pacing or the writing really only added to the tension and atmosphere of the show, and only served to make it work better somehow. It’s very clear that the writers have a strong affinity for the genres being referenced, and the era, but it never feels shoehorned or forced. The best example of this having happened before is in The House of the Devil, by Ti West. That is a film that feels like it could have come out in the 70s/80s, and it’s not presented in a way that feels like a filmmaker who wants you to KNOW HIS HOMAGE, it’s just the way to best show this story, the homage and the references build the foundation, rather than being the whole focus. Stranger Things, too, feels like something that could have come out in the 80’s and maintained a cult following all these years later, but it also feels like a show made with love and respect, that isn’t trying to show off how many deep horror cuts it can make.

Stranger Things, in closing, is absolutely one of the most fantastic television programs produced in the 2000’s. It deserves the praise that it’s getting, and really does demonstrate a strong understanding of what it’s trying to do, creating a beautiful balance between loving tribute to the 80’s and a high-quality show made in 2016. It does this by recognizing the things that work well in the 80’s horror and sci-fi that people love, and by working within those. We often forget that a LOT of bad movies came out in the 80’s, they weren’t all The Thing and Halloween, so this works with the best, giving us the experience that is presented.

Stop hemming and hawing, go watch the show. It’s spectacular.

My Rating: *****

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