Over the past week and a half, I, like a lot of people apparently, have watched and loved Netflix’s Stranger Things, created by the Duffer Brothers who have previously worked on Wayward Pines. I found Stranger Things to be incredibly addicting and entertaining. During the first couple of episodes I viewed it as a well done homage to 80s classics by Stephen King, Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter that, at first, relied too heavily on 80s tropes and cliches. Fortunately the show quickly distinguished itself from a show that merely emulated its predecessors by being a show that subverted certain genre archetypes and crafted a story that stood on its own. One of the reasons why this show worked so well is the acting.
From Winona Ryder (!) to David Harbour, the adult characters all give solid performances. But to have each main child actor give solid performances that never feel fake, overly precocious, or over-the-top is a great feat. Not since the start of Game of Thrones have I felt that the casting of the younger cast members has been this strong. Often times a show will have one young actor try to upstage others or appear “actor-y”, in the sense that their performance purposely draws attention to itself and never feel natural. In Stranger Things, the kids act, talk and feel like kids. I bought the friendship between Will, Dustin, Lucas, and Mike, I felt the fear and isolation of Eleven, I believed the confusion and angst in Nancy and Jonathan, and I sympathized with Steve. These are all characters that were well rounded with great dialogue and complex emotions, and each actor succeeded in capturing the subtleties and complexities of their respective characters.
SPOILERS ahead as I discuss a lot of SPOILERY THINGS starting now. So if you haven’t seen or finished watching Stranger Things, leave here, go and turn on Netflix and watch the series (you really should) then come back and read this article.
Nancy and Jonathan
These two characters complement each other wonderfully. They both feel trapped by their upbringing and surroundings and want to break free from the monotonous suburban lifestyle. Nancy learns to be a little less selfish and becomes more hardened as the series goes on, while Jonathan learns to open up to those around him and find the courage to stand up for himself. They find common ground and start to appreciate one another. Hell, Nancy even, just maybe, starts to fall for Jonathan. They aren’t the typical angst-filled teenagers that become unbearable to watch, their human.
Charlie Heaton and Natalia Dyer play Jonathan Byers and Nancy Wheeler, respectively, and are both fantastic. Charlie Heaton as Jonathan was very emotionally vulnerable in his role in scenes where he fought his mother on whether or not his brother Will was dead, when he stood up to his selfish father, and in perhaps my favorite Jonathan moment, when he tells Nancy why she is in the woods hunting for a monster and quietly scorns her for her naivety and projects his frustration onto her. It is not easy for an actor to be that vulnerable and emotionally exposed so often, but Heaton nailed it. Charlie Heaton was great in this role and he successfully portrayed a full range of emotions.
Natalia Dyer played Nancy with tenacity, strength, confusion, self-doubt, power, and grace. Thankfully her performance was supported by strong writing for too often female teenage characters are written as love-lost characters who have little to no depth and are just walking cliches. Nancy is none of that. At first she appears like she might be, as Natalia Dyer plays the early doe-eyed Nancy perfectly as this slightly dorky 80s teenager who has captured the affection of a cute popular boy. But she soon stands up for herself and is in control of her actions. She denies her boyfriend Steve’s advances and accepts them when she wants. She sympathizes with Jonathan when he is bullied and is concerned for her friend’s safety when Barb goes missing. Natalia gives Nancy all of the emotional intricacies found in a real teenage girl without making slightly spoiled suburban girl abrasive or mean. Her heart and kindness are always present through Natalia Dyer’s graceful performance.
Vulture has a solid piece explaining how Steve, as a character, subverts the douchebag boyfriend character and becomes a person who has his issues, but is ultimately sympathetic and likable. Instead of explaining why I liked his character so much, I’ll just let Vulture’s article do it better. Though I will say that I really loved the moment where, after he and Jonathan fight a la They Live in an alley, he goes back to the theater and offers to clean up the “slut” graffitti on the marquee. It was a wonderful touch that really made Steve sympathetic, especially due to the humility on display through Joe Keery’s performance as Steve.
Mike, Lucas and Dustin
As the fourth in the Goonies/E.T./Super 8 inspired quartet of nerdy friends was captured by the show’s beast and is lost in the Upside Down, the three remaining best friends are Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) are left to solve the mystery of their missing friend. These three friends will do anything to try to find and save their lost and at once thought dead friend Will. Their bond is strong and their friendship is undeniable. The three young actors have great chemistry and interact with each other as if they have been friends their entire lives.
They talk like kids, act like kids, move like kids, get frustrated like kids, get quickly angry then forgiving with each other very easily like kids, and get excited with wonder like kids. They aren’t precocious; they are smart characters played by smart actors who don’t ever act stiffly or unnaturally. They inhabit their characters fully and, particularly Finn Wolfhard as Mike, are completely relatable. The camaraderie felt between the characters and more specifically the actors is strong and really rings true. These are best friends and brothers, portrayed with such truth by these young actors. Never once when watching this series did I think, “Oh, these are just actors acting”, I always viewed these actors only as their characters. I felt everyone one of their emotions, particularly when they were excited by, feared, or wondered at their new friend, Eleven.
Holy shit what a performance. Like all of the young actors in this show, I have never heard of Millie Bobby Brown who portrayed Eleven, but damn was I impressed. The subtleties on display, her expressive eyes, her menacing glare as she killed using her powers, her performance as Eleven was wonderful to watch. She truly was magnificent in this role. The character Eleven doesn’t have a lot of lines, but the words she is given are meaningful, and Millie Bobby Brown successfully projects a lot of emotion into each carefully chosen word. It is a bold performance that demands attention. Anytime Eleven says anything or uses her powers, you are captivated. She is such a flawed pint-sized hero that you love but can’t help but feel sorry for. Eleven is a science experiment, who escapes her pseudo-prison and finds friendship along the way. She is a human with extraordinary telekinetic powers, but she doesn’t view herself as human until she learns what it means to be human through her friendship with Mike, Lucas and Dustin. This journey is captured brilliantly by Millie Bobby Brown who captures every bit of fear, hesitation, confusion, wonder, excitement, sadness, and joy in Eleven.
One of my favorite scenes with Eleven is when she is left alone in Mike’s house and she is amazed with everything she finds, from a music box to having fun reclining in a lazy-boy. She treats each object as a new discovery, as she is hesitant yet curious to observe and explore this new world. Everything is new to her, she is almost an alien to the quiet suburban town. The wonder in her eyes is very visible. I loved this character and I loved Millie Bobby Brown’s performance as Eleven.
Stranger Things is a hugely entertaining 80s homage filled series with likable characters portrayed very well by a fresh young cast of unknowns. With each fully realized performance, I hope this young actors find consistent work if they so choose and have successful careers. They deserve it with such natural, graceful, emotional performances on display. To use a cliche, they brought the characters to life, and I believed that they were real.