Updated: Mar 30, 2020
By Derek May:
YIN: Stranger Things (Season 3)
“One summer can change everything.”
That’s the apt tagline to the third and latest season of the Netflix juggernaut that’s comfortably established itself in the modern zeitgeist despite being set 35 years ago. Since its debut in 2016, Stranger Things has wowed us with its endearing characters, throwback aesthetic, and carefully balanced mix of horror, comedy, and drama. Watching these small-town kids battle otherworldy creatures and nefarious government organizations with plucky, naïve determination and a bond forged through outcast kinship has been pure nostalgic joy. But as tends to happen over time, stories get pushed further, and alongside the kids begin to grow into young adults. Thankfully, creators Matt and Ross Duffer (the Duffer Brothers) smartly embrace these changes rather than attempt to rage against the tide. And thus, season 3 manages to expand everything in fresh, organic ways while still expanding on the original narrative.
Picking up a bit further down the road from last season, we find the tightknit group loosening up while enjoying a well-earned respite, slipping into a natural divide as members begin to pair off. Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) are in full-on teen romance mode, sucking face every chance they get and driving Hopper (David Harbour) mad in the process. Lucas and Max (Caleb McLaughlin and Sadie Sink) have managed to stick it out despite Lucas’s maligned understanding of affairs of the heart, and even Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) has found love with the “perfect” girl from summer camp. Will (Noah Schnapp) may not have an S.O. just yet, but there are hints as to where that might lead, and I think it fits naturally and is addressed fairly.
Meanwhile, Nancy and Jonathan (Natalia Dyer and Charlie Heaton) are very much an item, even managing to work together under the same internship. And the ever-present tension between Hopper and Joyce (Winona Ryder) continues, finally moving further into the territory we’ve all been clamoring for, though not quite in the ways you’d expect. But my favorite pair this time round involves a new face, Robin (Maya Hawke), who finds an unlikely partner with world’s greatest babysitter, Steve “The Hair” Harrington (Joe Keery), over at Scoops Ahoy in the new Starcourt Mall. Their journey is touching, hilarious, and easily the best goofball duo since Steve and Dustin (who thankfully continue their bromance this year).
I could go on for pages still, suffice it to say that you can see the pattern emerging. Nearly every character is involved in some sort of pairing, developing an intriguing connection that also crosses seamlessly amongst the various others. The brilliance of this is not only that it appropriately addresses the state of the characters’ as they develop, but offers a chance to grow out of the usual formula and allow them to find some footing on their own or in new, interesting combinations. Over the past few years, we’ve seen a cycle of the basic idea that these are all well-intentioned people far out of their depth, and basically need Eleven to do all the heavy lifting while the rest provide important but ultimately minimal support. This go round, we see the characters all far more comfortable and confident in their ability to handle these unimaginable, intense, and often horrific situations. And even more impressive, this time they might not be able to rely on Eleven like they used to, and that’s where things get really interesting!
It’s so hard to give a review without going deep into spoiler territory, but much of this year’s story hinges on the fact that this time, Eleven herself is a target. The Mindflayer—powerful demon of the Upside-Down dimension—has been struggling to establish a foothold in our world since El helped open the door. And now, not only is the Big Bad corporeally rooted here, he knows who has thwarted him and establishes a plan to deal with it. But he’s always had unwitting help, and once again the government proves it has more know-how than sense. Only it’s not our government; it’s that quintessential 80’s villain—the U.S.S.R. As a child of that era myself (and given what’s happening now), this is a timely and welcomed throwback and creates a whole new set of challenges for our heroes. And setting it all over that most American of holidays, the Fourth of July, is just an inspired bit of whimsical genius.
As you can tell, the stakes have never been higher, and the threat never so real. And thus, it’s a testament to the show’s strength that in and amongst all this, we still find ourselves coming back to the people and their intimately personal struggles. Strong thematic issues about love, sexuality, betrayal, trust, loss, respect, and equality are all addressed over the course, complementing the overarching plot and driving the characters into unexpected realms where the actors get to really dive into some meaty emotional issues. And dive they do. While everyone has become more comfortable in their respective roles, the youngsters in particular have matured as actors. It’s not easy to reflect things on screen that are either happening—or worse haven’t happened yet—offscreen. But each manages to rise to the occasion and take us along for the ride with seasoned confidence.
It’s hard not to simply gush over each and every thesp this season, but I want to call out a few more in particular. Ryder’s turn this year as Joyce has been a joy to behold, as we’re see a true evolution of the character from exasperated momma bear to finding the confidence to bring that passion and focus into other areas of her life, not to mention the danger at hand. Joyce is a hero for all this year, and her partnership with Hopper is on a far more even level that it’s ever been, which makes their romantic entanglement all the more appropriate.
In addition, skin-crawling bad-boy Billy (Dacre Montgomery) is back in a big way. After last season, I wasn’t sure I’d be up for much more, but the way the creators have managed to include Billy, and the journey he ultimately takes, gives the character a truly unexpected arc. And while it doesn’t forgive or excuse his past deeds, we do somehow find ourselves sympathizing and, by the end, even sort of liking troubled young Billy. It’s a testament to Montgomery’s performance to make that turn feel natural, and I’ll be curious to see what the young man does in the future.
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed each of these season so far, and I’m relieved beyond words that the series shows no signs of wearing thin or resting on its laurels. For my money, this may be the best season yet, and I know that’s saying something. Make sure you stayed tuned through the end credits of the last episode for hints of the inevitable season four, which, save for one obvious direction, I truly have no clue where they might head. The Duffer Brothers have captured lightning in a bottle, and somehow have managed to repeat the process three times over. I think part of that is a healthy respect for the characters and their world, enough to never trivialize or artificially manipulate them. And so we keep tuning back in because we love these people from top to bottom, and each new combination seems to find new avenues of giddy fun. We laugh, cry, and cringe alongside them and keep begging for more. If that’s not the sign of successful storytelling, I don’t know what is.
The old adage seems to hold true: the more things change, the more they stay the same. Anything less would just seem . . . upside down.
Director Danny Boyle has earned my trust over the years to where I’d check out pretty much anything he released at this point. Add to that a work by writer Richard Curtis, perhaps best known for penning Love Actually, and I’m already there. So I didn’t need much coaxing to see their newest flick, Yesterday, a quirky little film about a world where only one man remembers The Beatles and, as one might, uses those songs to become the most famous musician in the world.
Who wouldn’t want to check that out?!
Strong as that premise is though, both writer and director know it can’t carry a film without characters whom you really care about. At its core, Yesterday is simply a love story between struggling musician Jack Malik (Hamish Patel) and his doe-eyed manager, Ellie Appleton (Lily James). It’s their relationship that makes us care about Jack’s meteoric rise and establishes what’s at stake because of it.
Unless you’re an EastEnders fan, you might not be familiar with Patel, who makes a resoundingly strong cinematic debut here. Handsome enough to lead, goofy enough to be relatable, Patel instantly endears with sweetness and a bit of that dry British humor. In different hands, the character might come across a bit despicable in passing off such iconic music as his own, but it’s exactly that moral dilemma that drives much of the plot, makes the character all the more human, and allows Patel the opportunity to really dig into the emotional reality of such an outwardly absurd concept.
Because let’s face it, this is a ridiculous premise. The only way it works is by addressing the reality of the situation and having characters make honest decisions that have real consequences. This was, in fact, my biggest fear going into the film: that the idea is too one-off to really hold up. But luckily, there are several additional and tangential breaks with our reality that we buy in to it all fairly quickly.
Curtis and Boyle actually manage to layer in a hefty dose of social and environmental commentary that supports rather than detracts from the main storyline. Each is but one of many themes addressed, not the least of which is the notion of fame. Jack is so single-mindedly obsessed with his pursuit of recognition that all else tends to fall by the wayside—and that’s really his biggest flaw and what makes the entire concept work. The premise allows Jack to be essentially handed his wildest dreams and the pinnacle of success on a silver platter. What does that do to a simple and good-natured man? Even the most successful person often feels like a fraud, so what happens when it’s actually true? All of these larger issues are explored in depth with sincerity, pathos, and, naturally, humor. And Patel’s somewhat-ironically star-making performance really sells the entire conceit.
Along those same lines, there’s some absolutely fascinating twists on the reactions of some of the other characters, particularly when it’s revealed that Jack might not necessarily be the only one who remembers the Fab Four. The tension inherent in that leads to one of the best bits of the film and reveals a refreshing and sort of beautiful outlook. On the other hand, we get the musician’s perspective through a fellow singer-songwriter in Ed Sheeran, playing at least a version of himself. Opinions of his music aside, he relates the legitimate feelings of inadequacy everyone basically feels at the feet of McCartney and Co. While I think Sheeran ended up with a far larger role than might be necessary or expected, he does a pretty decent job in one of his few dramatic turns.
But of course, the person most affected by Jack’s actions is Ellie. I really love what both the creators and James have done with the character, making her self-assured and resilient enough to not simply pine for her love, waiting for her feelings to be reciprocated while Jack has his wild adventures. While there’s a natural element of all that, Ellie understands that Jack’s sudden burst of talent and fame is what he’s always wanted, what both of them have seemingly struggled for, and thus refuses to be the one to hold him back. It’s emotionally mature and heartbreakingly understandable, and James provides a masterful performance to walk the line between her heart’s desire and her head’s decision. It all adds a nice, fresh dimension to the will they/won’t they trope and underpins while not undermining the real story.
The supporting characters all provide that Boyle-esque level of quirk, elevating the dramatic tension with good-natured silliness. Two notable standouts are Saturday Night Live breakout Kate McKinnon and Game of Thrones alum Joel Fry. McKinnon peppers her seedy record exec role with her typical eccentric delivery, by far the most extreme character in the film but never so far as to be totally out of reality. Similarly, Fry is the lovable screwup you know is just there to cause comic mayhem. After the first couple of appearances, I was significantly worried his character would begin to grate to the point of unwatchable. But whether through skillful understanding by the actor or judicious editing, Fry ends up with just the right amount of screentime and whackiness to keep him this side of delightful.
Yesterday certainly has one of the most original concepts we’ve seen in a good while, and though the love story fundamentally follows the typical formula, it also provides enough nuance and believability to never feel trite. Thus the whole film combines for a warm, delightful romp that has you cheering for love as much as tapping your toes to the music of the greatest band of all time. In fact, Beatles fans in particular should get an extra thrill not only from the music itself, but from a surprising cameo that really showcases the filmmakers’ love for the band and the men behind it. Yesterday emphasizes that once a light as bright as the Beatles has shined, the world feels much darker without it; and that no matter the circumstances, their words still provide the best advice to a planet at large or a star-crossed pair just finding each other:
All you need is love.