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THE OA Mesmerizes with a Powerfully Beautiful Peculiarity (Review)

THE OA Mesmerizes with a Powerfully Beautiful Peculiarity (Review)

The OA is a magnificent beast.

Netflix’s new series from Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij is a stellar achievement of narrative invention that continues the pair’s creative conversation that started with Sound of My Voice, offering a slanted vision of family life, health, and mortality. The latest in a series of mystery-driven dramas, it’s opening episodes should grab most savvy viewers by the throat and hold tight for 8 episodes.

The OA posits several big questions and the promise to answer them right off the bat. Prairie Johnson (Marling) has been missing for seven years and when she returns back to her parents and childhood home, her sight has been restored and she’s gained some wicked scars on her back. She’s desperate. Searching for something. Refusing to explain where she’s been and struggling to reach friends from that time.

She falls in with a rabid high school bully named Steve (Patrick Gibson), using him to escape a de-facto house arrest that’s put in place “for her own good.” She eventually recruits a scrubby crew who meets in the attic space of an in-construction McMansion to listen to her mesmerizing life story. They meet at midnight, and they have to leave the front doors of their homes open before they arrive.

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Like the best stories marked by nebulous pasts and hints at the supernatural, The OA thrives because of its characters. Prairie (who demands to be called The OA upon her return) is at the center of it. Marling is a human magnet—one of this generation’s most intriguing and engaging artists who has rebuked the typical path of sitcoms and other stardom to revel in the unusual. Her work (alongside Batmanglij) is ethereal and strange without being alienating or impenetrably experimental, and they’ve kept well within that wheelhouse here. Underneath the oddity, are people.

The OA is a character shaped and warped by accidents. The loss of her sight, the loss of her father. If we trust her to be honest in the telling, her childhood is marked by a fairy tale sensibility. It’s a riff on Cinderella complete with the wicked step-mother (a chain-smoking aunt in this case) and a sense of being meant for something great. In as much, this child dragged across the planet is a reflection of how circumstance is usually what alters our lives. Things we have zero control over come to define us as much as our response to them.

She’s a mighty woman with a torch who speaks with the pleasant timbre of a cult leader—like a gypsy psychologist who’s dipping into her own pill stash. If she has super powers, it’s getting fiercely intimate with a person immediately and comporting herself with the wisdom of a thousand-year-old philosopher. When we first meet her, she’s wrestling a rottweiler into submission, barely noticing its bear-trap bite, and when she offers up the story of her childhood, we learn that her father cured her dreams of drowning by convincing her to slip her 6-year-old body into the freezing Russian water of an icy lake.

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Spiraling out from her, there’s the ragtag bunch meeting for her story: four high school kids and a teacher facing their own identity issues. Prairie’s parents, Abel (Scott Wilson) and Nancy (Alice Krige), are steely and fragile, electing to become parents late in life—responsible, beholden—to a girl riven by trauma. Like the others, they are defined by their relation to The OA. She is the cold sun at the center of everyone’s orbit.

Yet, it’s the introduction of Hap (Jason Isaacs) that pours gasoline on the plot. He’s studying extraordinary individuals who have experienced death, and he’s Jason Isaacs, so it’s probably smart not to trust him. Once Prairie falls into his orbit, we start to see the events that shaped her.

The OA is a sprawling and often intense vision, and that’s just the first episode. The opening salvo is brash and thoughtful and vitalizing, and the emerging details that follow enrich the relationship dynamics as much as the question marks that float above everyone’s heads.

Rating: 5 out of 5 burritos

5 burritos

Images: Netflix

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