Reservation Dogs Disney +
The Magic of the Diary of Anne Frank
The young characters in Reservation Dogs are “fans of pop culture and they kind of recreate it where they’re at,” its creator Sterlin Harjo told an American interviewer a few weeks ago and, within the space of a few minutes watching it, you can see what he means. The title refers to the Quentin Tarantino movie, of course. A scene in the second episode plays clear homage to John Carpenter’s The Thing. And one of the main characters is called Elora Danan, who vaguely rings a bell before Wikipedia reveals she was the infant in 1980s fantasy classic Willow.
And yet what this really feels like is The Goonies or The Little Rascals – movies that aren’t referenced – for an Instagram generation. It’s a quippy, smart and heartfelt coming-of-age story in which the young heroes, all of whom are native Americans, yearn to escape what they see as a pointless backwater – the Oaklahoma reservation where they live – and go to California to start a new life. The problem is that with no legitimate method of getting the necessary cash together they have to resort to a series of heists and scrapes, all while coping with the activities of a newly formed rival gang. There is also a persistent shadow of sadness over their hijinks, as it’s hinted that a friend of theirs has died by suicide.
Each episode unfolds like its own standalone piece and the series is woven through with bursts of magic realism, dream sequences, and dramatic shifts in tone, which feel like a realistic depiction of this ragbag group’s adolescent search for identity and meaning.
Part of what makes Reservation Dogs so lovable is that it simply drops the viewer down in a very distinctively ethniccommunity without trying to contextualise it: Harjo trusts us to understand that the insecurities and contradictions of these teenagers, as well as their yearning to be free of parental controls, are universal. Gradually the series begins to render the elderly antagonists a bit more sympathetically (they were just kids once too, is the message that seeps through).
If all that sounds a bit worthy, rest assured, it’s very funny too – an uncle keeps exaggerating his importance at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and the gang leader is graduating from “impulsively doing whatever he wants” to “impulsively doing whatever he wants slightly less often”. The incredible young cast, none of whom had acting experience before this, also give the series a freshness. And this series is, by itself, a reason to subscribe to Disney+.
If Reservation Dogs is a strangely accurate depiction of adolescence, The Magic of the Diary of Anne Frank feels like an attempt to look through both ends of the telescope, at a tragic figure whose wartime writings formed what is still the most bestselling non-fiction book in history after the Bible.
One moment she is a kind of Jewish saint, whose holy powers are extolled by a depressing procession of celebrities (everyone from Gloria Estefan to some guy who was in The Hunger Games). The next moment she is an ordinary girl whose teenage resentments and mention of periods helped her writings chime with readers. She can be an icon and an ordinary girl, of course, but co-directors Bernard Krikke and Simonka de Jong’s continual shuttling between Frank’s biography and testimony and her gigantic post-war impact, somehow seems to create a diluted impression of both.
As with many documentaries on Netflix, there is also a yawning lack of context. We’re told most schoolchildren know nothing of the Holocaust but it’s almost accepted here that it’s beyond explanation. The attacks on, and edits of, the diary, are not dealt with properly. And certain ironies prove elusive: the famous house where the Frank family hid has been recreated in Buenos Aires, we’re told, but Argentina’s harbouring of Nazis in the post-war period doesn’t merit mention. A few brainwashed North Korean schoolchildren are shown taking the wrong message from the book (“that America must be defeated”) and the narrator soothingly reminds us that “Anne wanted to end wars”.
These young victims of modern totalitarianism present a lesson about history repeating itself, but it is not one the makers of this documentary seemed to care about and the best that can be said about it is that it might drive some to read the book itself.
My So-Called Life
This series was deservedly massive in the 1990s (I first came across it as an exchange student in Germany where it was huge) and elevated the quotidian trials of teenage life – zits and mixed messages from the local dreamboat – into high stakes drama.
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Her spiritual predecessor may have been Lucy from Charlie Brown but Daria actually started out life as a side character on Beavis and Butthead, before bringing her own brand of observational nihilism to the screen with this series in 1997. A new series is reportedly in the works.
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