On its surface, Netflix’s new ‘80s-inspired series Stranger Films is an homage to the kid-posse films of that era: it opens with four boys, around 11 or 12, playing a very heated and rambunctious Dungeons & Dragons campaign at the moment of a crucial showdown, a foreshadowing of what’s to come.
[It should be noted now: This review contains spoilers.]
The boys, baby-eyed best friends who tool around on their dirt bikes and comprise a quartet of smart not-quite-nerds, find their middle-school ease upended when Will (Noah Schapp) disappears into thin air, his bike discarded hastily in the woods by his house. What no one knows, but what we see, is that he was ripped through the fabric of space-time by a terrifying, shadowy creature with a humanoid shape and long arms, some slimy monster he first notices through the fog.
For eight episodes, we follow Will’s friends as they desperately try to find their friend, certain he’s not dead. Led by sweet-dispositioned Mike (Finn Wolfhard), sharp and skeptical Lucas (Caleb Sinclair) and adorable science genius Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo, looking like a lost member of Odd Future), early in their journey they meet a strange, scared-looking girl (the haunting Millie Bobby Brown) with a nearly shaved head and a tattoo of the number eleven—her name—on her arm. She seems not to know how to speak, but the boys soon realize that she’s got extraordinary abilities as a telekinetic and an empath, can not only move things with her mind but speak to beings... beyond. And gradually, it’s clear that her presence in their lives and Will’s disappearance aren’t unrelated.
Stranger Things, which is set in 1983, hits every perfect note of a classic ‘80s sci-fi/horror/adventure movie, referencing everyone from Steven Spielberg to Wes Craven but not overly obvious. The lighting, the tone, the music, even the typeface and title font, is perfect (the only thing that took me out of the era was Dustin because, again, the culture cycle makes Gaten Matarazzo’s wardrobe feel somewhat contemporary). Despite that, there’s an undercurrent of humor that neutralizes what could have been over-devotion to the era; at one point, Will’s older brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), a sullen and arty photographer who’s the kind of high schooler who was really into Joy Division and The Clash in early ‘80s small-town Indiana, snaps at bystanders who were witnessing an argument on the street. “Show’s over,” he grunts, very credulously, as the camera pans out on him from behind, his denim-clad physique skulking down the street. It’s a knowing portrayal of the ‘80s teen outcast there, too, but it’s also just this side of parody, a very subtle wink to fanatics of the era and genre.
By far the winkiest aspect, though, is Winona Ryder, who portrays Will’s beleaguered, chainsmoking mother Joyce with a frazzled urgency, also wisely creeping between the margins of homage and reinvention. Running parallel to the primary kid-buddy-movie rubric is an important story about the role of the mother in these types of classic films of the 1980s; with eight hours to tell the story, Ryder’s character is given a much more prominent role than past moms, but she’s also given all the same archetypes, which she plays up with the kind of arch, sardonic humor that lurks beneath all her roles.
The primary influence here is E.T., in which Dee Wallace plays a harried but loving single mother to Elliott, who discovers the title alien in question and secretly harbors him in her closet. E.T. references are everywhere in Stranger Things, from the boys tooling around the woods on dirtbikes to the disguising of Eleven—who lives in a blanket fort in the basement—in Mike’s sister’s blonde wig and pink dress. Here, Stranger Things borrows liberally from Dee Wallace’s character and blows it up to include concerned mom archetypes from—in descending order of obviousness—Poltergeist, Goonies, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Shining.
Ryder’s character is, of course, the hardworking single mother of Will and Jonathan, who left their abusive, deadbeat father (Ross Partridge) years ago. She holds a job at what seems to be a small department store, but takes time off once her son goes missing, teaming up with the good-hearted but broken police chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour). Though it’s alluded that perhaps they hooked up at some point in the past, there’s not really a love subplot between them, thankfully; mostly they bond over the fact that Hopper has lost a child, too, and their relationship is mostly predicated on their work to get Will back and a mutual experience with grief.
Grief and unhinged hope are the emotions in which Ryder is mostly submerged, with an edge of agitated desperation. Flashbacks show her as a kind, loving mother who supports her children unfailingly, and allow a slight reprieve from her fear and, eventually, unhinged fixation on who—or what—might have taken her son. But mainly she’s working with the rigid focus of someone who would do anything to ensure the safety of her son.
The dramatic fixation of Joyce actually puts into contrast how ‘80s movie moms of this genre—including, to a degree, Williams’s—were often written into stories as plot advancers or devices, not necessarily fully fleshed out characters but stand-ins for the true heroes, which were usually boys or men. (One major exception was A Nightmare on Elm Street, whose heroine, Nancy, clearly inspired an eponymously named character in Stranger Things played by Natalia Dyer.) As Joyce, Ryder plays up her character’s plight at the precipice of possibly losing her mind with grief at her son’s disappearance. She shrieks and trembles, admits she knows her story—that she can communicate with Will through a series of Christmas lights she’s strung up in her house—sounds crazy. But she’s also reflecting an element of unhinged care that you can surmise any mom might express if her child vanished. The fact that her child seemingly vanished into a wall in her house and is trying to reach her through an alternate-dimension membrane that looks like a placenta (hey, it’s sci-fi/horror!) only ups the ante.
To that end, Ryder’s acting is nearly camp in a series that’s not camp at all, which is why, when it works, it really works. For all Stranger Things’s adoration for 30-year-old films, in certain ways it acts as a corrective, very gently pointing out the similarities between the Cold War and the present—government conspiracy/interference/citizen monitoring, check—while also reminding us what’s changed, including the fact that an actor like Winona Ryder can not only lightly spoof the hysteria ‘80s women characters were prone to with the kind of smart self-awareness she’s exhibited in every role, but also be so good at it—and beloved—that she can carry an entire series on her back, and with her name.
In a New York Times profile last week about Ryder’s rocky ascendance from teen queen to, now, fully adult star, Ryder talked about preparing for the role:
“I don’t have kids, so my mom helped me a lot on this,” Ms. Ryder, 44, said while sitting on a big leather couch at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel here, dressed in black jeans and a faded Leonard Cohen T-shirt she bought at a concert in 1988. “I’d call her sometimes and say: ‘Mom, what would you do if every indication is that your child is dead, but you believe that lights are telling you that he isn’t?’ And she’d say: ‘Honey, I’d totally believe that. It’s primal.’”
It’s this impulse that makes Ryder’s character relatable, and which helps redeem the freneticism of ‘80s mom characters before her; the primality with which she plays Joyce is an imperative, a survival instinct, and one that, in the end, works.
Images via screenshot/Netflix