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A surface view of Netflix’s new original The OA could reasonably see it as a Stranger Things copycat: Mysterious girl enlists the help of small-town locals to take down the mad scientist who once held her captive.
But the new series, written and directed by indie starling Zal Batmanglij, is not only a more mature and dramatic offering than Stranger Things, but arrives with a far broader message and philosophy that’s beautifully and mysteriously told through layers of sentiment and spirituality. The OA is a delicate puzzle, ripe with intrigue and yet thick with moralism, which takes gleeful pride in leaving you full of a bizarre mixture of skepticism and wonder.
Over eight episodes of varying length, The OA tells the story of its titular character—who also goes by the given name Prairie (Brit Marling)—and her sudden reappearance after having gone missing seven years earlier. Prairie, now 28, purposefully obscures her story from her parents and authorities who mostly seem curious how she, once blind, can now see. Prairie explains herself to four local high school students and a teacher: Troubled teen Steve Winchell (Patrick Gibson), wunderkind Alfonso (Brandon Perea), choir boy Buck (Ian Alexander), stoner Jesse (Brendan Meyer), and midlife crisis Betty (Phyllis Smith).
Through fireside chats in an abandoned development home, our heroes learn Prairie originally lost her sight in a near-death experience during her pre-adoption childhood in Russia. Pushed away from her birth father under mysterious circumstances, Prairie is adopted by her Midwest parents Abel (Scott Wilson) and Nancy (Alice Krige). Early into adulthood, she is kidnapped by Dr. Hunter Hap (Jason Isaacs) and kept in a cage with four others who approached the afterlife and lived to tell the tale. In flashbacks, we see the grueling experiments Dr. Hap exposed his prisoners to in attempts to recreate the conditions of their resurrections.
The OA tiptoes around a spiritual embrace of the afterlife, though gleefully avoids any dogmatic theology. Prairie glimpses death as a Russian matriarch floating in an eternal starfield, while her love interest and fellow prisoner Homer (Emory Cohen) finds himself chased through clinical hallways. It is in these productions the show reveals a love of psychedelic imagery that veers toward corny without ever going over the edge.
The OA, even in its plainer moments, is a gorgeous show, carefully rendered by Batmanglij and crew in a unique blend of genres and styles. The OA veers between domestic mumblecore, gritty thriller, and CGI headtrip with the poise and intricacy of someone who holds the series as a singular vision. The tone of the show is full of melancholy—it often risks suffocating the viewer in cloudy landscapes, dingy basements, and the hushed voice of its star. But the wonder with which Batmanglij approaches the show’s central mystery is the core driving element, and it’s full of enough optimism to keep even the most cynical viewer afloat.
That said, the series offers much to mock and even more to infuriatingly debate.
The backgrounds of all characters who are not Prairie are full of cheesy tokenism and carelessly handled by their writers. Steve’s torrid behavior and attempts to evade military school, for example, are interesting but go nowhere. Same with Jesse, who lost a mother to suicide; or Alfonso, who works two jobs to keep his alcoholic mother afloat. Phyllis Smith is incredible as Betty—giving an asymmetrical character moral depth and unique flaws—but The OA fails to give any sense of achievement to her plot.
Even more curious is Buck, played quietly by 15-year-old Ian Alexander. Buck is transgender and buys testosterone from Steve (who deals more illicit substances as well). From one angle, Buck is refreshing not only because he is played by a trans actor, but also because his gender identity isn’t presented with the heightened dramatic trappings many filmmakers give to trans characters. From another, however, mentioning that Buck is trans and then doing almost nothing with the character makes the entire matter seem like an afterthought. It could be successfully argued that Buck is “post-trans,” but then why mention that he is trans at all?
That dilemma is representative of The OA’s overall conflict as a show—how to make such a fantastical element as resurrection and the afterlife both human and approachable? Marling is, at times, dazzling as Prairie, and she maneuvers the character artfully between wistful and delusional. Throughout The OA we are left in doubt about Prairie’s stories or the miraculous events surrounding her, and Marling’s handling of the character—erratic and driven, yet quiet and messianic—keeps the viewer guessing as much as it does her acolytes.
The OA echoes the way other filmmakers have employed the fantastical elements of faith to tell a somehow larger story about loss and the value of life. In Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, for example, big-budget effects and an inherently gripping storyline also unveil the purpose of belief in oneself and others. In Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones—which has a shockingly similar tone though a disparately darker storyline than The OA—the afterlife is likewise portrayed in glowing imagery and iconography.
Like those films, The OA is not a religious story but a spiritual one. This is not a Sunday school production. That said, viewers might be tempted to switch off The OA after the first irony-free and literal use of the word “angel.” But its ability to sell that central concept—no different a matter of accepted fantasy as the Upside Down in Stranger Things—is something to behold.
Analysis of The OA’s finale will fill many a blog post and forum thread for years to come, but might leave most viewers with clasped fists full of their own hair. Far from fence-sitting, however, the ambiguity the show leaves us with is a gap we and many of its characters are expected to bridge by faith.
If that sounds too much like work, then The OA isn’t for you. But the intrigue of Prairie’s story shines bright past its mawkish veneer and seems set to put doubt in even the most stone-hearted skeptic.
Gillian Branstetter is a reporter and essayist who specializes in the intersection of technology, LGBTQ issues, and privacy. In April 2018, she joined the National Center for Transgender Equality as a media relations manager.