Friday, July 29, 2016

BSN Mini-Review: "Petra"

“Petra” is not what you might call subtle writing, but then, the Mechanicals aren’t all that subtle of subjects. They don’t speak subtly, they don’t act subtly, they don’t think subtly, which lets the Candle Wasters ramp up both the comedy and the on-the-nose thematic dialogue to levels previously unseen in Bright Summer Night. The Mechanicals are BSN’s answer to Lovely Little Losers’ Costa McClure, which makes sense, since they fulfill similar roles in the Shakespeare plays the series are inspired by.

The Mechanicals are a joke—ridiculous, over-the-top, out-of-control—but they’re a joke the narrative demands that you take seriously.  Sure, Frankie can’t keep track of where she stands on what issues, and Taylor really needs to pee, and Nicky doesn’t know when to quit with the poetry (OH MY GOD, Nicky’s poetry), and Petra’s losing control of everything. Sure, they’re a mess. But they care. They care so much, they don’t even know what they care about yet. They try to take on everything: gun control and climate change, politics and peace in the Middle East. They don’t know much about any of those topics, they don’t really know how to make a difference, but they know that something’s wrong, and they want to do something about it. The Mechanicals are 14. They’ll grow up, they’ll learn the details of the world, they’ll focus their caring, they’ll figure out how to create real change. Or maybe they won’t; some people never do. But they’re starting from the right place.

We know this because of Puck, who is starting from the wrong place. Before Puck shows up, the Mechanicals are just comic relief; they’re likeable, but they’re ridiculous, and there’s no particular reason to root for them. But Puck’s arrival reminds the viewer that there’s something worse than being ridiculous: Being disaffected. Puck gives the Mechanicals a concrete problem to unite against, and Petra and Nicky the chance to step up and explain (with, again, no subtlety to be found) why the Mechanicals’ view of the world is useful, and Puck’s is not.

Puck is the antithesis of the Mechanicals: Where the Mechanicals care about everything, Puck tries very hard to care about nothing. It’s earnestness vs. irony, selflessness vs. self-consciousness. Puck and the Mechanicals both sense a wrongness in the world. The Mechanicals are trying to fix it; Puck is trying to protect themselves from it.

Which is not to say that Puck is a villain. They’re the antagonist of this episode, because this is Petra’s seven minutes in the spotlight. But looking at BSN as a whole, Puck is the closest thing we have to a central protagonist; they start off the series, and if A Midsummer Night’s Dream is any indication, they’ll likely end it. This is their story, which means, inevitably, that they have a lot to learn.

Random Bits

It’s cool how TCW use phones to keep track of time. We know from Lena’s phone check in “Lena” that she was hanging out on the dance floor at 12:47, which anchors “Petra” in time. Combined with Puck’s dialogue in “Puck,” we can deduce that they’ve been searching for the Idleness for a little under an hour. And Lena and Deme’s text messages at the end of “Lena” let us look a little bit into the future: Bryn still doesn’t have the drugs by 1:13. (Although Puck has now found Awhina’s purse.)

Yeah, the water problems are definitely leading up to something.

I’m gonna go ahead and guess that the next episode will be “Zander.”

I got a little caught up in the thematic talk (what else is new?), so I should make it clear that “Petra” is a really, really funny episode.

“I am a neo-Marxist libertarian, and I will not be labeled!” OH MY GOD.

“Fuck the patriarchy!” “I’m not the patriarchy!”

“That’s America, Frankie. New Zealand has different amendments. I think. Probably.”

“Palestine. What’s going on there?”

And, okay, the obligatory thematic quote: “Look. This is valuable, what we’re doing.”

Saturday, July 23, 2016

BSN Mini-Review: "Lena"

“Lena” gives us another deep dive on a character (no points for guessing which one), though it’s not quite as deep as the look “Puck” gave us at Puck. Or perhaps I should say that it’s not as broad; whereas “Puck” gave insight into at least three important areas of the titular character’s life, “Lena” focuses all of its attention on conveying Lena’s awkwardness and her crush on Deme and her awkwardness about her crush on Deme. It spends a minute or so moving plot, as Lena and Bryn’s conversation sets up future shenanigans. And it spends a little time establishing the outlines of the personalities of Mia, Deme, and Zander, with Mia getting the most attention and Zander the least. But the vast majority of Episode 2 is the Awkward Lena Show.

And what a show it is. We get to see only one narrow aspect of Lena’s life, but we see it in searing detail. From offering to hold Deme’s jacket, to dancing just outside the circle of people who know what they’re doing, to sending and then hurriedly retracting a kiss emoji, there’s not a minute of “Lena” that passes without a soul-killingly well-conceived example of how difficult Lena finds it to interact with the world. By the end of the episode, we don’t just know that Lena’s awkward, we know exactly how she’s awkward. We know that she wilts under pressure. We know that she’s fully aware of, and instantly apologetic for, her every social failing. We know that she has a crush on Deme, and that she wants to act on that crush, but that every time she tries, her courage fails her.

That lack of confidence is the root of all Lena’s awkwardness. Not a single one of her painful interactions in this episode—at the fridge, on the dance floor, over text messages—would have been nearly so bad if Lena had simply followed through on her intentions to ask Deme out, to dance, to send the kiss emoji. Lena’s problem is internal—which suggests a possible outline for her story arc.

So “Lena” sets up for its central character a goal (Deme), an obstacle (lack of confidence), and a potential self-inflicted stumbling block (whatever’s going to go down with the Idleness). And it does so without ever feeling rushed. In fact, “Lena” is full of pauses for breath, moments when the episode seems to sit still and let you simply wallow in Lena’s pain. The only conversation that moves quickly is Deme, Mia, and Zander’s at the beginning, which may be why it’s the least satisfying interaction of the episode; it’s almost entirely exposition, meant to establish certain bare-bones facts about the Lovers to hold you over until they can be fleshed out in more detail. (Deme’s into Mia; Mia’s dad doesn’t like Zander; Deme’s looking to get high tonight; Zander has the kind of image that makes it hard to imagine him doing drugs.) This is all important information, and it’s not as if the scene is a chore to get through, but it’s neither emotionally gripping nor dryly funny, the way that the rest of “Lena” and all of “Puck” are.

But if “Lena” starts slow, it finishes on fire. TCW banked on Kalisha Wasasala’s acting ability to carry the final text conversation between Lena and Deme, and Wasasala returns magnificently on their investment. She pulls Lena from relief to amusement to a kind of ecstatic hope in total silence, as Deme’s last line—“Never stop”—lingers on-screen, urging her onward. It embodies the deeply emotional, almost magical feeling that is so far the best thing about Bright Summer Night.

Random Bits

Wasasala carries the episode, of course, but Maddie Adams deserves a mention for her speech to Lena about how to flirt with Deme. The speech isn’t about Mia, but it’s a perfect encapsulation of her character, and Adams nails it.

Perhaps the only character motivation in “Lena” that isn’t fully clear is Bryn’s when he sits down with Lena. I can think of two reasons why Bryn might decide to talk to her. Either he’s playing the part of the good guy, being gregarious, talking to everyone—or he’s trying to hit on her, and backs off when it becomes clear she’s got her eye on someone else. Both of these possibilities are in line with what we know about Bryn so far, and though one interpretation is more flattering than the other, neither of them really involve Bryn actually caring about Lena’s feelings.

Food for thought: In this episode, Deme and Bryn both go up to complete strangers and introduce themselves. They share a certain confidence in their own belonging.

“I said ‘Kill me now, I want to die.’” What a killer music cue.

I wonder who Deme knows at this party.

“I will not be put in a bubble!” says Petra in passing, setting up what will presumably be the first scene of Episode 3.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

BSN Mini-Review: "Puck"

Hey guys, and welcome to my regular mini-reviews of Bright Summer Night. In the unlikely event that you’re coming to these reviews not knowing what that is, BSN is a webseries inspired by Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, set in the modern day at a Wellington house party. It’s by The Candle Wasters, who previously produced the Shakespeare-inspired webseries Nothing Much to Do and Lovely Little Losers

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“Puck” is our introduction to the world of Bright Summer Night, and as introductions go, it’s an efficient one. In six minutes, we meet most of the major characters (the Mechanicals being the sad exception); check in on two relationships that are going to drive a lot of plot (Bryn and Awhina’s fracturing romance and Puck’s desperate desire for Bryn’s attention); and get a sense of the mood of the party that we’ll be attending for the next ten episodes (sprawling and quiet enough for interpersonal drama; drunken enough to make the drama worse). We also get a fairly deep dive on the character of Puck: their insecurities, their troubles, their desires.

The Candle Wasters have a lot of practice, from Lovely Little Losers, at packing a great deal of information into a very few details, and it shows here: In only six minutes, Puck makes perfect sense as both an adaptation of the Shakespearian Puck and a person in their own right. Like the original, BSN’s Puck is an outsider who leans into that status, delighting in disturbing the peace. Like the original, they seem to sense a ridiculousness about their world that no one is willing to admit to. Like the original, they would do anything to please Oberon/Bryn. But with BSN’s Puck, we get to see possible reasons for why they’re an outsider (their gender) and why they’re so disdainful of the world (growing up in a home that that displays “dream” and “FAITH” figurines on the outside while being poisoned by anger and resentment on the inside). And we get to see why they hang so desperately on Bryn: Despite their nihilism, they desire connection and acceptance, and Bryn gives that to them, in tantalizingly small doses. In short, Puck is a teenager you might meet in any high school in the world.

There is one element of Puck’s life that I find myself unclear on, and that’s the specific nature of their relationship with Bryn. Puck and Bryn speak to each other as if they were siblings, and certainly their relationship makes much more sense if they’re siblings, but then Puck and a partygoer describe Puck as Bryn’s “friend” and his “buddy.” It makes you appreciate the opportunity that even a hyper-low-exposition vlogseries like Lovely Little Losers provides for characters to just stare at the camera and say, “This is my brother/friend/whatever.” (Not that TCW always availed themselves of that opportunity.) There may be good reasons for the confusion that have yet to be revealed, but if so, TCW haven’t made the job of revealing it easy on themselves; BSN has only the slightest bit more exposition than LoLiLo, and there’s no possibility of talking heads—and only nine short episodes left to work with.

Random Bits

It goes without saying that BSN looks and sounds fantastic. TCW are putting their budget to good use, going all out with evocative lighting, a well-timed soundtrack, and a nice thematic overhead shot that I can’t for the life of me figure out how they pulled off. (Is it computer-generated? Did they rent a freaking crane?)

The best line of “Puck” is Awhina’s, from the trailer: “Good news, everyone, climate change is over because Bryn took a class in English fucking Lit!” But my nose for theme makes me think that the most important line may be Thea’s: “The Dean’s List doesn’t mean anything, Bryn. It doesn’t help anyone except you.”

I assume Bryn and Awhina’s relationship is going to continue to get some of the spotlight going forward, which is why I haven’t discussed it in depth here, but I should at least say that so far, it’s just as efficiently and realistically laid out as Puck’s character.

Bryn clearly tells Puck that Awhina’s purse is flowered, yet Puck goes through every purse on the table and takes things from them. That’s perfectly in character, but there’s another weird purse-related moment earlier on: Puck gives a long loaded look to their mother’s purse before they leave the house. Possibly LoLiLo has just primed me to read too much into things, but the framing of the close-up on Puck’s mother’s purse certainly seems meaningful.

It must be such a relief for TCW to be able to just show text messages on screen.

The fairy lights falling down is a nice kicker for the episode.