There may be no feeling more identifiable than those teenage years—the sensation of being out-of-place, clumsily mishandling your nascent adult powers and oftentimes stuck in the wrong skin altogether. This itchy sensation has long been the province of superhero comics and movies—it’s what fuels, say, the long-running “Spider-Man” franchise. And it’s put to clever and evocative use in Netflix’s “The Innocents,” a new series whose lead character (Sorcha Groundsell) has the power to shift between bodies; unlike most superheroes, though, she can barely control her gift and seeks to keep it hidden. Teens, the show’s obvious intended audience, will relate to “The Innocents'” high dudgeon, but adults will find a show that punches above its weight, defined by both its stirringly dramatic tone and the two charming performances at its center.
Groundsell’s June, who’s on the eve of her 16th birthday as the show begins, flees her repressive home along with her boyfriend, Harry (Percelle Ascott). The pair’s destination is loosely defined: They just want freedom. “I love this song!,” June declares as they drive into their future. “I’ve never heard it before, but I love it!” The optimistic vibes are shattered when she inadvertently jumps into the body of a stranger; in a sharp touch, we see June as herself in shots from her point-of-view and as an entirely new person when Harry is looking at her.
There is a bit too much of “The Innocents,” whose eight episodes run close to an hour and could be whittled down. There’s less tension than there is amplification; key points are repeated relentlessly, and the season’s overarching plot, involving a cruel doctor (Guy Pearce) who wants to crack the secret within June’s genes, has fizzled by season’s end. But the show’s moody atmosphere, lent by locations in the U.K. and Norway photographed in dim light and shadow, casts a spell that feels dreamily teenage. (At times, it calls to mind director Melina Matsoukas’s video for Rihanna’s “We Found Love,” another European-set tale of youthful passion pushed to its limit.) And certain of the series’ repetitions are endearing: They bring to mind the self-soothing of kids nearing adulthood who, deeply insecure in a world they’re only just learning to navigate, seek from and give to one another constant reassurance. “Out of everyone I’ve ever met, I choose you, June McDaniel,” Harry tells his girlfriend, in one of the series’ many declarations of love. That he’s telling this to a teenage girl who happens, at that moment, to be inhabiting the body of an adult woman makes clear that they share a sort of love that’s dynamic, changing with circumstance as both discover exactly who they are. It’s a story studded with moments like these, made all the more pronounced by chemistry between the two leads that’s strong enough to sustain June’s absences from the story when she swaps bodies with someone else; we believe that Harry sees her spirit in new forms.
The show “The Innocents” calls to mind most sharply is Netflix’s biggest zeitgeist hit for teens, “Thirteen Reasons Why.” Like that show, this one has such a clearly defined mood and aesthetic that it’s easy to settle into. Unlike “Reasons,” though, “The Innocents” tells a story that’s ultimately affirming, rooted in affection rather than spite and fear. Its belief in love as a force for good, and the goofy romanticism that inflects each moment, ends up in a potent place. Even the series of semi-contrived obstacles that comprise the plot work towards this goal; the show itself is as swooning as its central couple, and its sense of melodrama is recognizable, and sweet. It’s a story whose unabashed romanticism may keep many grown-ups from broadcasting widely that they’re watching it, but that feels pleasant and tonic in the midst of a confusing historical moment in which so many people feel lost and, perhaps more piquantly than they have since they were teens, out-of-place. Through a haze of slow-moving, woozy adolescent torpor that never obscures the show’s emotional precision, “The Innocents” gets that sense of dislocation, and the bonds that help us snap out of it, just right.
Drama, 60 minutes. Premieres August 24 on Netflix. (Eight episodes, eight reviewed.)
Cast: Sorcha Groundsell, Percelle Ascott, Guy Pearce, Nadine Marshall, Sam Hazeldine.
Executive Producers: Hania Elkington, Simon Duric, Elaine Pyke, Charlie Pattinson, Willow Grylls, Farren Blackburn.