“Girlboss” tells a stylized version of the true story of Sophia Amoruso — a down-and-out dirtbag hipster who turned selling clothes on eBay into the multimillion dollar it-fashion label Nasty Gal. The New York Times dubbed her “the Cinderella of tech,” partly because Amoruso’s story is so outsize: She literally went from rags to riches — in her case, from petty theft and dumpster-diving to being worth $280 million.
But the timing of “Girlboss” is a bit awkward. When the Netflix show was announced in February 2016, Amoruso was at the height of her success — founder, CEO, bestselling author. In the intervening months, Amoruso’s star has publicly waned: On November 9, she resigned as CEO of Nasty Gal, as the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
There’s an interesting story there, but it’s not the story “Girlboss” has alighted on. The Netflix half-hour takes a light, hyperbolic tone with Amoruso’s s–tshow of a life — amused by her casual stealing, comfort with various levels of filth, and total disregard for the feelings of others. It assumes that Amoruso is someone we all know has spun this nastiness into solid gold success. But she isn’t, and we don’t, and as a result, “Girlboss” is a love letter to a paragon of success that doesn’t exist. It does not help that Amoruso’s book “#GIRLBOSS” — the bestseller that the show is based on — is a kind of millennial “Lean In,” part generic advice and part ballsy showing-off.
To its credit, “Girlboss” looks great. The show begins in 2006 San Francisco, with Sophia (Britt Robertson) careening around the city trying to escape the eviction notice taped to her door, and the atmosphere it builds is a captivating, tangible one: Vintage stores, dive bars, dingy apartments, and trying-too-hard mannered young people. “Girlboss” is about Amoruso finding and monetizing her aesthetic sensibilities, so it makes sense that the show has its own style consciousness, alerting the viewer to the idiosyncrasies of the pre-recession hipster scene. Watching Sophia find and resell a vintage leather jacket at the end of the first episode has an inevitable, thrilling, superhero-origin-story feeling to it.
But Sophia herself is a frustrating hero. Robertson brings a manic energy to the character — an overwrought emotionality that is sometimes entirely plausible and sometimes off-puttingly mannered. It’s hard to tell how intentional or nuanced this performance is, because to put it bluntly, Sophia is frequently just awful — a tiny whirlwind who has trouble metabolizing other people’s emotions. “Girlboss” skews young-adult, and shows for teenagers are a little more comfortable showcasing emotional rollercoasters. But even with that framework, it’s hard to tell if the show admires Sophia or finds her useful as the butt of every joke. But it is confusing that her grating selfishness appears to read as charm to the other characters in the show. (Maybe that’s the key to Amoruso’s will-to-power success.)
And this points to the fundamental problem with “Girlboss.” The show feels amateurish; there’s odd lacunae in the dialogue and structure that indicate a lack of polish. The fact that the show attempts a slightly hyperbolic, slightly surreal biography of a real-life person is fascinating, and at first Sophia is like a s–t-talking American “Amélie,” bangs and all. But it’s hard to create something stylized without veering towards commercialized or childishly basic. “Girlboss” so strangely renders its goals that it appears to be stuck in its own striving, making for an oddly perfunctory journey. Much like Sophia Amoruso in 2006, “Girlboss” does not seem to know what it wants to be when it grows up. And while the potential is thrilling, it’s messy, too.