There are many series and made-for-streaming movies about teenage life on Netflix. But none as ambitious, sobering and bold as Grand Army.
Some reviews have connected it to the Degrassi franchise, thanks to the down-to-earth look, tone and approach to high school life. It’s a fair comparison, but not exactly accurate. It is Degrassi on steroids, brimming with soaring, prickly conversations about careers, sex, pornography, race, misogyny, sexual identity, money and, well, how to change the world.
Even if you find the opening episode a bit chaotic – it’s meant to be – stick with it because the third episode is a small masterpiece of TV drama, breathtaking in its daring texture and timbre.
It arrived recently and from the get-go, it’s a different teen saga. While it is set at a high school, this school is for the best and brightest in New York City. Not the rich and privileged, mind you. It’s not Gossip Girl territory. These teens are academically or creatively brilliant. They come from different types of ethnic and economic backgrounds and they are mostly headed for the top universities and stellar careers. If, that is, high school doesn’t destroy them first.
The series starts as sprawling, teeming with characters.
First we’re thrust into the grubby confines of a girls lockerroom before dance practice. Joey (Odessa A’zion) needs to help friend Grace (Keara Graves) with the sort of issue that no network show would ever dramatize. (I can picture a network exec fainting at the thought.) Also gliding around are Jayson (Maliq Johnson) and Owen (Jaden Jordan), two talented saxophone players. There is also Sid (Canadian Amir Bageria, who was in Degrassi: Next Class), a swim team star, Dominique (Odley Jean), a formidably dedicated student aiming to be a psychiatrist, and Leila (Amalia Yoo), a Chinese girl who was adopted at birth by a white American family and is incredibly imaginative but bullied by other kids for not being Chinese enough.
A bombing incident nearby puts the school in lockdown, the kids are thrown together, hunkered down in the building, and we see the complexities of their lives and relationships come to life. They talk fast, vividly in teen argot and with sarcasm or sincerity. There will be times when you might need your close-captioning to capture everything.
Things happen. The pressures of work and school are sharply alive. They talk about attending Harvard or Cornell University. Then Episode 3 comes along and with one of the sax players belting out The Star-Spangled Banner in his own jazzy style, a basketball game begins. Who takes a knee and who doesn’t? That matters.
Next, three stories of love, crushes, dating and hooking-up unfold simultaneously until it all ends with a scene of sexual assault that will make you angry and heartbroken. It’s a truly superb hour of drama.
A layer of reflection lingers over the hour as Sid, whose real name is Siddhartha, writes in his journal about what other kids would say if they really knew his background: “A curry lover coming for American jobs.” Leila attends a rather sweet party for a friend but spends all her time desperately texting a boy who doesn’t care. Dominique, at the mall, tries to arrange to bump into a guy she has a crush on. Dom, as she’s called, is an extraordinary figure. She works at several jobs to help her Haitian immigrant family survive, is sharp as a tack and incredibly eloquent.
It’s Joey’s story that becomes the hard focus. She’s out with guy pals she feels totally comfortable with, drinks a bit too much and the night out escalates into what is inescapably, sexual violence. The entire storyline (directed by Darnell Martin) is filmed with stunning force and intricately staged to give you an authentic sense of bewildered horror.
Odessa A’zion is formidable as Joey. (A’zion is a daughter of Pamela Adlon and carries Adlon’s gift for an arrestingly cool female gaze on a chaotic world.) For a while the series pivots entirely on Joey, this young woman utterly confident with her body, her fierce intelligence and her world view. What happens to her tells you firmly that, as smart and seemingly gifted as these kids are, they are totally not safe from each other and the contemporary world.
Grand Army, set in Brooklyn, was made in Toronto and one of its pleasures is seeing Canadian actors everywhere. (Clement Virgo also directed one episode.) Apart from Amir Bageria, there is superb work by locals Geoffrey Pounsett, Sydney Meyer, Raoul Bhaneja, Nadine Roden and others. The series was created by Katie Cappiello and very loosely based on her play Slut: The Play, but Joey’s story is one real portion of the play that remains here. This series radiates something very different from other teen dramas.
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