3.5 / 5 stars
If you’ve seen Brit Marling act, you know that her strength – if you choose to call it that – is being overly emotive. Onscreen she is a deep feeler of feelings, a wrencher of guts. An even greater strength is Marling’s ability to find or create projects that let her do her thing, requiring her to wrinkle a well-groomed brow or share a moment of philosophical spirituality (or spiritual philosophy).
With each flicker of thespian-ship, Marling’s earnestness risks hurting the movie she’s in with a dose of Just Too Much. But the pale, lithe actor somehow inspires sympathy – it’s her innate sense of purity, her glinting hair and eyes hinting at a youthful, perhaps naïve woman. All of this comes to an otherworldly, metaphysical head in the bizarrely appealing first season of The OA, co-created and co-written by Marling and her creative partner, Zal Batmanglij.
In films The East and the exceptional Sound of My Voice, Marling and Batmanglij put the former’s soft-spoken talents on display, positioning her as someone who may not be what she claims to be. In The OA, she never stops talking about who she is: Prairie Johnson, a once-missing blind girl who returns to her hometown as a woman, no longer blind, and on a storytelling mission. She gathers a handful of local misfits each night to share tales of her childhood, adoption, abduction, and near-death experiences. They listen with rapt attention, knowing that getting to the end will be significant for them all – perhaps reflecting a fantasy relationship that Marling and Batmanglij imagine with their audience.
The thing is, no matter how much stagy intensity Marling or The OA tries to sell, it’s hard not to buy it. That’s because the scripts are overstuffed, unpredictable and unapologetically loony. The story alternates between Prairie’s new home life – re-acclimating to normality and meeting with her motley crew – and her abducted life. Sometimes, we sit long enough in one world that it’s easy to forget about the other. And that’s a fairly good sign that a show works.
The abduction scenes are legitimately frightening, with touches of Silence of the Lambs and Misery, and the cold solitude normally reserved for horror movies. Prairie is kept in a glass enclosure within a dank cement basement along with others who’ve returned from death, held by a mad, brilliant medical doctor (a standout Jason Isaacs) obsessed with the whereabouts of the afterworld and those that have been there. His experiments, when The OA finally reveals them, are conducted in a contraption out of a Terry Gilliam nightmare.
But here comes the kooky stuff: Prairie believes that from her near-death experiences – which look like a cross between an herbal medication retreat and a drug-happy midnight movie – that she can pass through dimensions by evoking “movements.” These are a series of physical motions that look like a beginner’s guide to contemporary dance, and sound like a case of sleep apnea. They’re both ridiculous and oddly enchanting, and when Prairie teaches them to her cellmates, they’re turned into a fantastically edited staccato cadence of connection.
That’s how a lot of The OA feels. At face value, the parts border on being idiotic, but the deeper execution is enticing and unique. The final episode is the perfect example: It’s a misguided attempt at being a relevant drama but it still achieves something, proving that there’s art in the abandon. For Marling the writer, the way to create something worth watching was to go the same route as Marling the actor: Overplay the hell out of it.