The OA is an ideal auteur piece. It exists explicitly for the impassioned expression of its particular creators (Brit Marling, Zal Batmanlij) and their like-minded audience. You can probably already guess where I stand. But trust me, this isn’t going to be one of those reviews where I rebuke the work for refusing to appeal to my conventional tastes. No, this is the review where I spend the entirety scratching my head until it bleeds.
And there’s more than enough questions. Many of which, for your viewing sake, I cannot afford to ask. But the question that perplexes me the most is probably the haziest: What is The OA supposed to make me feel? Again, conventional. I like knowing what I’m getting into within the first five minutes. And for long stretches of time, The OA feels like it’s going nowhere. But it seems intent and content that way. The state of normalcy in The OA seems to be gloomy introspection. Characters assured by spiritual philosophy and pseudo-science. But I suppose that’s to be expected when every main and supporting character has some kind of emotional baggage.
“When I say it out loud it all falls apart.”
Steve (Patrick Gibson) is an ill-tempered juvie one strike away from reform school. Buck (Ian Alexander) is a transgender boy whose father refuses to call him anything but Michelle. Betty (Phyllis Smith) has yet to open the will and testament of her deceased brother. French (Brandon Perea) is forced to fill the parental shoes of his unemployed alcoholic mother. And Jesse (Brendan Meyer), well, I’m not sure what his problem is. Never saw his parents, though, so I’ll assume the worst. And Prairie Johnson (Brit Marling) – or as she prefers to be called, The OA – is an escaped kidnapee and previously blind. Together, the group listens to Prairie’s stories of her wayward life along with her promises of supernatural abilities. Think The Breakfast Club meets Heaven’s Gate (minus the spaceships and suicide).
The OA uses a perplexing narrative centered on Prairie recollecting her toxic past. It’s perplexing to me because I can’t figure out its purpose, other than to lose tension. But it does bring up three intriguing possibilities. One, whatever happened affected her profusely. Two, she could just be crazy. Three, she could be lying. The trouble with these possibilities is a clumsy narrative. Large chunks of Prairie’s story contain no Prairie at all. It’s a first-person narrative slipping into omniscient, with details too specific to accept as Prairie’s memory. It makes you question the writer rather than the character.
“The biggest mistake I made was believing that if I cast a beautiful net I’d catch only beautiful things.”
But what of the character? What of Prairie, the OA? She comes off like someone back from a spirit quest, newly reborn, awakened by the auras of the universe. But she isn’t smug about it. She isn’t smug about anything. She’s sensitive yet fortified. Distant from her family, but connected with the afterlife. She could exist on a higher plane, but chooses to exist as a mortal. One would accuse her of developing an ego, but we’ll save that for the actress/writer/director portraying her. Marling clearly wants to display a leading woman in every aspect, from page to picture. All power to it. Must that power cost a character’s humanity? There’s so much to Prairie thatmakes her more than human, but not enough to remind us that she is human. You could say she behaves this way because of her past, but that’s how she’s been her whole life. This starry-eyed, introspective wonder-kid. Too good to be true.
But maybe that’s the point. Maybe that’s what leads to assumptions and fan theories that she’s crazy or lying. Trouble is, the story doesn’t ask us to question that until the end. The group, as a whole, is complacent to Prairie’s wacky story right from the start. Steve seems to be the only sceptic, and he’s convinced in just two episodes. I suppose it’s a situation where belief is irrelevant so long as the story resonates emotionally. The OA’s story is about survival, overcoming the odds despite having none in your favour. Fine. But is that enough to motivate five people to come to an abandoned house, in the middle of the night, every night? I think I’d be less sceptical if the motivations were clearer or the stakes were higher.
“All great work, important work, comes at great cost.”
If you ask me, there’s a simple way to immediately improve The OA: Keep it in the cell. Drop the midnight circle and focus on Prairie’s escape. This would pump up the tension and focus the story on its strongest elements. If there’s ever moments of exhilaration or intrigue, it’s when we’re trapped inside Hap’s prison. Hunter Hap (Jason Isaacs) is also the strongest character. He’s a challenging villain to accept because he rarely comes forward as one. It’s an understated performance that almost (almost) makes you sympathize with him. But then you remember what he’s doing, and hold your breath for when he’ll eventually snap.
Still, I should remind myself of the show I’m talking about. The OA refuses to fit inside a single genre, story or 2-hour runtime. What I call trimming the fat is really extracting crucial elements. What makes The OA unique, what would ultimately be lost in my approach, is its empathy for its characters. The OA bares its soul to its characters to such an extent that the story is put on standstill just to give each their own spotlight. Marling’s and Batmanlij’s affinity for their ensemble means we learn something about each, but rarely much.
“You’re strange. I respect it.”
With The OA’s plot lines spread so wide, it’s difficult to get emotionally invested. I’d hope the issue is simple relatability, that each viewer can glean something different. But for me, the best moments and characters are too few and far between. I spent much of The OA wondering what I was missing. And I’m still wondering.