Of all the ways Netflix's 'The OA' might blow your mind, what it means for cinema — and the future of narrative storytelling — is the most exciting.
I may just have seen the most exciting film of 2016. On my television. Via Netflix. Technically, I suppose that makes it a TV series, but I wouldn’t call “The OA” that. I think “breakthrough” might be a better word.
The way I see it, “The OA” is a long-form movie — more than seven hours long, in fact — divided into eight chapters, conceived by a pair of paradigm-challenging filmmakers who’ve recognized untapped potential in this new medium. Let’s call it “on-demand storytelling,” where auteurs have been given a chance to tell stories that don’t fit neatly into two hours (or however long most people can hold both their attention and their bladders). Because it’s being produced for Netflix, and not for a major studio, it’s not obliged to appeal to everyone, but can justify its own existence by connecting with a core of passionate viewers. That’s part of what’s so incredible about “The OA”: It’s one of the purest pieces of auteur filmmaking I’ve seen all year, piped directly from the soul of its creators, writer-director Zal Batmanglij and co-writer-star Brit Marling, onto the screen, where the right audience seems to have found it.
(This would be a good time for me to disclose that I know those two talents personally. Variety named Batmanglij a “director to watch” back in 2012, and we’ve become friendly since. But I assure you that my enthusiasm is sincere — although perhaps not surprising, considering that I believe “Sound of My Voice” to be one of the decade’s most revolutionary debuts, and even screened it in the graduate film class I taught at Chapman U.)
For anyone interested in “The OA,” “Sound of My Voice” would be an excellent place to start. A pseudo-supernatural mystery about a pair of documentary filmmakers investigating a curious suburban cult that has sprung up around a woman who claims to be from the future, the project was Batmanglij and Marling’s first feature-length brainchild, but even then, it wasn’t a straightforward film. Clearly designed as a calling card for its creators, the forward-thinking thriller premiered in the Next section at the Sundance Film Festival — which seemed an apt enough place to put it, even though Marling’s other, more conventional movie, “Another Earth,” unfairly received more attention in competition that same year.
“Sound of My Voice” was conceived as a serialized narrative, with miniature cliffhangers or twists paced every 10 to 15 minutes, building to one giant open-ended head-scratcher at the end. It was structured in such a way that they could have split it up and released the project as a series of webisodes (sure enough, chapter one became a viral teaser for its theatrical release). Had Netflix been producing original content at the time, the film might just as easily have served as the pilot for a full-length series; in fact, HBO nibbled, but when they wanted to re-shoot the entire thing, the filmmakers went with Fox Searchlight instead.
It was clear at the time that Batmanglij was thinking beyond the usual limitations of narrative, coupled with electrifying ideas within the story itself. As a film critic, I typically consider myself lucky if a movie provides a single memorable set piece. “Sound of My Voice” was loaded with them: cult members eating earthworms, vomiting apples, and trying to make sense of the old Cranberries song, “Dreams,” used in a totally fresh context. “Sound of My Voice” played with preexisting genre conventions, pretzeling them into wild and unpredictable new forms, and worked its magic almost entirely through its creators’ imagination (which in turn tickled ours), since the budget required them to tell a complex sci-fi story with available locations and minimal effects.
Sound familiar? Batmanglij’s next movie, “The East,” felt somewhat more conventional in form, though the content remained subversively radical. This time, instead of being the leader of a weird cult, Marling played a federal agent sent undercover to infiltrate one — and the deeper she got, the less clear her allegiances became. Was she in control of the situation, or was she being seduced by the charismatic terrorist cell? That kind of ambiguity can be maddening in some storytellers’ hands, but it’s sort of the most compelling thing about the way Batmanglij and Marling operate: They never underestimate their audience’s intelligence, even though our pleasure often comes in mistakenly thinking we’re a step ahead of the game, only to have the rules suddenly rewritten.
On the surface, “The OA” appears to be yet another cult story — and to some extent, it is, but only insofar as any group of outsiders with strong convictions and potentially controversial beliefs (a club, a team, a family) could be viewed as a cult. The series grabs you from the first scene, a freaky moment atop a high-traffic bridge in which a woman slips between moving cars and throws herself off the railing, her stunt captured via iPhone and uploaded to YouTube. Like many of the enigmas surrounding “the OA” (as Marling’s character calls herself), the explanation comes, but never feels entirely clear.
One could say that the next eight hours consist largely of red herrings meant to divert our attention away from the most effective ending I’ve ever seen in a TV series, if indeed this is a TV series. Certainly, the final twist — which left me crying uncontrollably for nearly half an hour, so deeply was I affected — operates more in the cinematic than television tradition. (Although things are changing at the level of “The Sopranos” and “Lost,” television has a vested interest in leaving narratives open, stringing audiences along for season after season until they lose interest, and then pulling the plug when no one much is watching anymore. Consider “Orange Is the New Black”: As long as the show is popular, Piper ain’t ever getting out of prison.)
By contrast, “The OA” commits to a destination. Although its creators have suggested in interviews that they have ideas for how to do future seasons, this stand-alone eight-hour narrative is structured with a beginning, middle, and end, satisfying the demands this critic typically puts on movies, while providing a depth with which few two-hour mysteries can possibly compete.
Granted, there’s a discipline to telling a self-contained story in a finite running time, but “The OA” proves to me what television critics have been saying for years; namely, that in an era of on-demand viewership, where audiences are both engaged and sophisticated enough to follow extended serial narratives, the television medium offers opportunities, not limitations. Television storytelling is less about plot, and entire episodes of my favorite series (such as the Rian Johnson-directed “Fly” in season three of “Breaking Bad”) can be devoted to exploring new corners of a given character’s psyche. Along those lines, “Lost” would delve into a different survivor’s backstory every week, and I half-expected “The OA” to do something similar, since Marling’s character has gathered five misfits from the local high school to listen to her own mind-bending tale — but I don’t think Batmanglij is thinking in terms of episodes (each one runs a different length, for example).
“The OA” is a continuous, ever-escalating narrative, and each of the eight segments distributed by Netflix is a chapter. The story doesn’t move forward so much as deeper, or perhaps higher, raising the stakes for the characters as it goes, and as soon as I finished, I circled back and rewatched the first episode, which suddenly had new meaning. Details that had seemed like fragments of clues suddenly had context. Now, I recognized that the scene in which the OA reaches out to “see” her adoptive mother’s face for the first time wasn’t just the gesture of someone who’d been blind for most of her childhood, but also the first human contact for a victim who’d been deprived of touch for more than seven years. And what had earlier sounded like hyperbole in the OA’s claim, “We all died more times than I can count,” now resonated as profound tragedy.
Variety’s own review of the series begins, “It is hard to take ‘The OA’ seriously,” and perhaps that’s true. But I would argue that seriously is the only way to take it — that the material dares to be sincere in a medium poisoned by ironic detachment. Where other shows let audiences off the hook with a wink, “The OA” stares us right in the eyes (as Marling does in the scene when the water rises in her tank, a Christ figure submitting to her own sacrifice). There is humor in “The OA,” but it’s not camp. The entire experience is about the need for narratives that seem bigger than the incidents we face in our own lives. The same quality that the OA’s five followers respond to in her is what draws us into a show like this. As the poster on Mulder’s wall in “The X-Files” read, “I want to believe.”
Another facet of what makes “The OA” so daring is how, apart from that shocking initial bridge stunt, it takes its time to warm up. And then, as the story gathers steam, it actually encourages us to doubt the legitimacy of what we’re seeing. Can the OA be believed? Are the flashbacks we see real, or do they represent her listeners’ vivid imaginations … and by extension, our own? (Is that even allowed?)
Batmanglij and Marling have played these tricks before. “Sound of My Voice” manages to have it both ways: In that movie, Marling’s character is permitted to be both a fraud and the real thing, as various details either corroborate or contradict each of those perspectives. “The OA” is less coy. Yes, it invites skepticism: Is the OA really the daughter whose adoptive parents once called her Prairie? Did she actually live through the sadistic experiments that she describes? Did those horrors yield the enlightenment that she claims? And what is her true agenda in sharing all of this with a group of misfits?
Audiences can — and will — debate these mysteries ad nauseam, and that’s where filmmakers must surely find the other great allure of working for Netflix and Amazon, as opposed to making movies strictly for the big screen: A culture of analysis and discussion exists around television that simply isn’t there for movies, or not to anywhere near the same degree these days (though there was a day when dinosaurs walked the earth, and a Pauline Kael review might kick things off, inspiring cinephiles all over the country to carry on the conversation offline among friends). The only conversation of that scale to have emerged around movies this year has been whether “La La Land” is really everything it’s cracked up to be, a reaction by real moviegoers to the fact that critics in their relatively privileged silo have been talking about the movie among themselves for months, while audiences are only now getting to see it in theaters.
“The OA” was sent out into the world with minimal advance notice — apart from a trailer launched days before the show debuted, Netflix kept this stealth project largely under wraps. But it’s already struck a nerve with audiences, which you can see on Twitter, and message boards, and in the comments threads of traditional television reviews, which largely didn’t know what to make of it.
To be honest, I don’t watch enough television to fairly judge how “The OA” measures up. I love the way it shape-shifts through genre, the way the Wachowskis’ “Sense8” did. In the quarter-century since David Lynch brought us “Twin Peaks,” that series is the closest model I can find of filmmakers who’ve been frustrated by the traditional feature form — where mind-blowing narrative experiments must be constrained to two hours while appealing to four quadrants — migrating to Netflix or Amazon (where “Transparent” paves the way, challenging the stodginess of now-formulaic Sundance-style dysfunctional family movies) in order to spread their wings.
With “Sense8,” the Wachowskis may have succeeded in jamming the system — as members of the counterculture cult in “The East” refer to their own attacks — creating an expansive, compelling queer network of characters unlike virtually any television has brought us before. “Sense8” was a breakthrough for bisexual and trans representation on screen, and it was inclusive of international non-English speakers in a way that American TV seldom has been, apart from maybe the Korean couple on “Lost.” But the dialogue on that show sounds like it had been stolen from comic book talk balloons, while the acting was as melodramatic as daytime soap operas.
Audiences can only handle so much innovation at one time, so I’m inclined to excuse a certain amount of cliché in films that challenge convention in every other respect (à la “Avatar”). What some critics have identified as corny or familiar in “The OA” strikes me as the necessary common ground required for us to wrap our heads around all the wild and different things its creators are throwing at us. Otherwise, as the narrative is constantly evolving before our eyes, it’s almost impossible to get a grasp on what it is we’re watching. The twists come that frequently, and the kind of movie we think we’re in changes so often — from “Room” to “Flatliners” to “Gone Baby Gone” to … well, to list any more would spoil too many surprises — that it helps that the writers have set “The OA” in a drab suburban world among deceptively normal characters (except how normal is it to see a trans teenager on screen?). And of course, that proves essential to where it goes — which I’ll leave to you to discover.
What’s significant here is how, in a story where someone’s possible abduction and captivity plays such an important role, the focus remains on the victim, not the criminals (in the last-episode surprise, we never see the perpetrator’s face), and not a team of white male law enforcement officers, once again tasked with saving the day. When women are aggressed in our society, justice is seldom served. And even when it is, the real challenge isn’t seeking vengeance but finding how to move past the trauma. And yet the obsession always remains: Did the violation in question really happen? So many viewers are hung up on that question, rather than asking how to heal a society where such acts are possible in the first place, or how to help survivors deal with what they’ve experienced — which is where this particular meditation focuses its energy.
“The OA” represents a narrative made almost entirely without compromise — a rarity in any medium. For better or worse, it doesn’t feel as if network executives told Batmanglij and Marling what they could or couldn’t do (had it been pitched a few years earlier, “The OA” never would have gotten made). Where else on television can you find a white actress and a director of color being allowed to tell their own story? (Such progress has been limited almost entirely to satire in the past, from “Girls” and “Inside Amy Schumer” to “Key & Peele” and “Chappelle’s Show.”) That subversiveness can be felt from the first episode, when the OA says, “Well, it’s not really a measure of mental health to be well-adjusted in a society that’s very sick.” Though Netflix took the plunge, “The OA” is also made possible by Anonymous Content and Plan B, the same production company behind this year’s revolutionary “Moonlight” — not to mention “12 Years a Slave” three years earlier — which makes Brad Pitt (who owns Plan B) one of the most progressive producers in town these days.
Does my enthusiasm for “The OA” change my top 10 list in any way? No, even though I view the project as a long-form film, it was created for the small screen, and I object on principle to film critics putting television projects on their year-end lists (the way so many are doing with ESPN-commissioned “O.J.: Made in America,” or more outrageously, Beyoncé’s visual album, “Lemonade”). Doing so strikes me as an abdication of duty by film critics who’ve been tasked with identifying quality and innovation in their field. It’s a sly way of repeating the insult that the year’s movies aren’t as good as they should be, by looking to something outside the arena and calling it better.
This year’s theatrical fare shouldn’t necessarily be judged against the “The OA,” with its longer running time and different commercial demands. And yet, I fully expect the series to have an impact, the way landmark narratives that touch a nerve with audiences always do. “The OA” is hardly perfect, but it feels like the start of something. What Batmanglij and Marling have accomplished is an encouraging sign for filmmakers who might be debating whether to pitch a project to Netflix, Amazon, or HBO — or to incorporate its innovations back into the formula-dominated realm of big-screen features. With this example, others need only follow the sound of their voice.