If you’ve seen Brit Marling’s previous genre work Another Earth and Sound Of My Voice, you’ll have some idea of what to expect from her latest collaboration with her SOMV and The East co-writer and director Zal Batmanglij. Their eight-part Netflix series The OA (with each episode directed by Batmanglij) sees the duo take an ambitious step into long-format storytelling while absolutely retaining their authorial voice to create something that’s bold, moving and thrilling in its confidence and sheer unpredictability.
It’s also extremely difficult to talk about because the whole story doesn’t really become clear until approximately halfway through the series, but we’ll do our best. We’d advise knowing as little as possible, so you could always just cast your eyes left to look at the star rating, but if you’d like a bit more information, here we go…
Marling stars as Prairie, a woman who abruptly reappears after being missing for seven years. She has also inexplicably regained her sight, and she now calls herself The OA. Her parents (Alice Krige and Scott Wilson) eagerly bring her home, but she’s reluctant to talk to anyone about what happened to her. Until, that is, she meets a troubled, violent teenage boy named Steve Winchell (Patrick Gibson). She convinces him to bring four others to an empty house in her neighbourhood, and that is where she begins to tell her incredible story…
As previously mentioned, The OA is very much a Marling-Batmanglij project. There’s that incredible warmth and depth of feeling, that beautiful cinematography (from their regular collaborator Lol Crawley) and music (by Rostam Batmanglij, Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans and Jay Wadley), and that fascinating way they manage to present an earnest lack of cynical self-awareness while simultaneously wrong-footing the viewer and every turn and leaving them completely unsure and untrusting of the storytelling. It can soar, and it can bring you back down to earth with a thump.
Divided into chapters of differing lengths, the show plays with format and structure with an excitement that’s contagious. There are also moments that require the viewer to take a big leap, and it’s easy to imagine that some won’t be won over by where The OA is going. It’s reminiscent of 2015’s Sense8 in its absolute confidence in its storytelling and its message, and in the way that the people who love it will really, really love it. Others will not, but we certainly did (just in case that star rating’s not a dead giveaway).
As in Sound Of My Voice, Marling plays a charismatic woman who gathers a group of believers around her to tell a story that requires the listener to believe in the impossible, but while that film was told from the perspective of two people who were out to debunk a cult leader, this comes from a much more emotional place, and her performance anchors the show while giving it the right level of unpredictability and danger. She’s fearlessly open one moment, and totally unreadable the next.
There’s a real tenderness to the portrayal of every character in the series, and a rawness too, particularly in the case of Gibson’s Steve. The young actor’s performance is absolutely sensational, and there’s a superb ensemble cast backing him up.
Phyllis Smith (The Office, Inside Out) is fantastic as a jaded teacher who finds a new purpose in her relationship with The OA and her disciples, while Emory Cohen (Brooklyn) uses his blend of charismatic sweetness and emotional honesty to great effect. Jason Isaacs is on top form as a driven scientist and Riz Ahmed gives an understated turn as an understanding FBI psychiatrist. The really striking performances, however, come from the group of younger actors. Gibson gives the really eye-catching, breakout turn but Brandon Perea, Ian Alexander and Brendan Meyer are all excellent.
The OA won’t be for everyone. There are big jumps taken, and some of them are harder to go with than others. However, it’s so exciting to see a show that is so bold and broad in its scope and so emotional and nimble in its writing. It should also be noted that it is absolutely compulsive viewing as each episode peels back another layer of the mystery and takes us in unexpected directions. We hope that Batmanglij and Marling get the chance to return to this tale.
The OA is now streaming on Netflix. Read our interview with Brit Marling here and keep up with the latest genre news with the new issue of SciFiNow.