Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Mini-review: teen runaways in The End of the F***ing World

[The 300/400-word “review” is not something I generally care for, but it’s fun to dabble in once in a while, and it does require its own discipline. Have been doing a few of these short pieces for India Today, a sort of throwback to my first journalistic bylines nearly 20 years ago. Here’s one on the new Netflix show The End of the F***ing World]


“I’m James. I’m 17. And I’m pretty sure I’m a psychopath,” are the first words we hear in this darkly offbeat Netflix show; one way of looking at The End of the F***ing World is that it is about a young man coming to discover that the world is more twisted than he could ever aspire to be. It must be deflating at that age to realise you aren’t all that special or dangerous; that even if you tortured animals as a kid and scalded your own hand in oil, there are much worse, less self-reflective people than you around.

This tightly constructed, easy-to-binge-watch British series (with eight episodes of around 20 minutes each) centres on James and Alyssa, his restless and depressive new friend -- if that’s the correct description for someone whom he plans to kill (or so he claims). They agree to run away, leaving behind the town where they feel like misfits. “If this was a film, we’d probably be American,” Alyssa deadpans with the wisdom of one familiar with the Hollywood tradition of malcontents on the road, which stretches back at least to Nicholas Ray’s 1948 classic They Live by Night and includes Terrence Malick’s Badlands and Tony Scott’s True Romance.

At first, these two seem like cold fish -- desultory, blank-faced, with a mechanical and bored attitude to everything, even sex. (James seems only marginally more enthusiastic about killing Alyssa, but keeps putting it off – and if you look at that as an inability to commit, what you have here is a macabre love story.) But soon, circumstances bring out their vulnerable sides -- the first three episodes give us two nasty middle-aged men whose behaviour makes these kids seem like, well, kids -- and they become easier to care about.

I had heard this was a black comedy and was a little disappointed on that score -- there is some dry, morose humour (one high point involves a sad-faced gas-station attendant named Frodo, who looks like a very young version of Pink Floyd legend David Gilmore), but not as much as I had hoped for. There are other things to enjoy, though, notably the lead performances by Alex Lawther and Jessica Barden, a rock soundtrack that uses classics like “I’m laughing on the outside, crying on the inside” to unusual effect, and (if you’re into this sort of thing) a stylized murder scene with blood flowing dreamily at the camera. At times, the voiceover-driven narrative does come across as pretentiously, show-offishly nihilistic; but you’d expect an angst-ridden teen to be like that.

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