You want it dark, tense and fully female-centric? You got it.
Wentworth (Netflix, seven seasons) was the top drama in Australia for several years and a hit in Britain where one review summed it up as “an explosive mix of sex, drugs and violence.” It is that and more, a striking example of how to make strongly dramatic, addictive TV using a confined setting. From the get-go, it’s all tense direction, sleek editing and punchy writing. Things open with Bea Smith (Danielle Cormack) arriving at Wentworth prison for women. Exactly why she’s been incarcerated isn’t clear at first. She is terrified, worried about her daughter and on the verge of a breakdown.
No time is wasted here with complex backstory. Bea gets an ugly slice of prison life while still in the van taking her to the jail. When she’s directed to her cell, she opens the door to find two women having sex in the cot. One is Franky Doyle (Nicole da Silva), the prison’s queen, whose main interest is intimidation and staying the boss. Before Bea can get her bearings, she’s obliged to do favours for Franky. Dangerous favours. The pace and tension of Wentworth is relentless. As drama, it’s a model of speedy storytelling. And it’s frightening. Franky Doyle is evil and the prison seethes constantly with the throbbing, underlying presence of violence and sex. The setting is remarkably well done. The feeling of enclosure is dominant. There are CCTV cameras everywhere and they provide the only perspective that isn’t that of the terrified Bea. From there, the long-running hit gets even darker and gripping.
Lost Girls is a Netflix one-off, a very superior TV-movie that upends expectations. It’s the first drama from the great documentary filmmaker Liz Garbus (her I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is currently on HBO) but based on a true story. It’s about a beaten-down, blowsy mother of three on Long Island, Mari Gilbert (Amy Ryan), who discovers her oldest daughter, Shannan, aged 20, has been a sex worker and has gone missing. Is this murder or an angry daughter running away? Mari is no saint, rather a hard-working, somewhat cynical mother. But she feels guilty, anxious and alone. After pressure from Mari and others, a police search finds four dismembered bodies beside a highway. The grim missing-person case is a matter of finding a serial killer.
Low-key and frank about Mari’s failings, the movie has no interest in sensationalizing the daughter’s life and fate. It is a mystery, but also a rich portrait of life in gloomy, working-class Long Island. Mari works two jobs, as a waitress in a diner and on a construction site. There is no glamour or titillation here.
Tallulah is a Netflix one-off from 2015, and it’s superb, a sharp little gem. Sian Heder, a writer and producer on Orange is the New Black, wrote it and Netflix backed it. (It screened at Sundance to glowing reviews before streaming.) Heder’s gift is for expanding the story, for anchoring the actions of sometimes desperate, off-putting people in a humane context. There’s a lot of that here.
Canadian Ellen Page carries the film, playing the title character, known to everyone as Lu. She and her boyfriend, Nico (Evan Jonigkeit), wander the United States rather like contemporary hippie-hobos. They live out of a dilapidated van, survive on dumpster-diving and stealing and on a gas-station credit card that Nico got from his well-off mom.
Lu is full of old-hippie ideas. But Nico wants more than their aimless life; he wants to return to New York, see his mom and live a normal middle-class millennial life. So he abandons Lu. Abandonment – dealing with it and healing from it – is a significant theme. In search of Nico, Lu finds his mother, Margo (Allison Janney), a woman, it turns out, who is going through a bitter divorce, but wants nothing to do with Lu.
Lu then does what she does – improvises. At a hotel looking for free food, she’s mistaken for hotel staff by a boozy, unstable woman who needs a babysitter. So Lu takes the job. Lu is vaguely disgusted by the woman, Carolyn (Tammy Blanchard), who lets her little kid wander diaper-less and is in the hotel only to have an extramarital encounter. More abandonment, right there. Lu takes Carolyn’s child, feeling that somebody has to do the right thing. Then, in an uneasy alliance with Margo, issues of family and societal clichés about children and parenthood are teased out and put under severe pressure.
What ensues is wonderfully nuanced as the three main characters come to grips with the lives they’ve led. Page is extraordinary in some scenes – the perpetual child who became a hippie and is then drawn into a complex web of emotions about family and the care of children. There isn’t a wasted scene in this magical drama.
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