Review: 13 Reasons Why (Netflix)

13ReasonsWhy [www.imagesplitter.net]

Once in a while, a TV drama series comes along that is genuinely important – and Netflix’s offering 13 Reasons Why is one of them.  Teen dramas seem to be notoriously hard to get right – they are either light and airy with no substance, or they are so intent in getting “messages” or “issues” across that they lack dramatic substance.  13 Reasons Why isn’t perfect by any means, but it does manage to straddle the categories of “issue” TV and “effective drama” for the most part.

Hannah Baker, a teenager, has committed suicide.  Two weeks later, a box of cassette tapes winds up on the doorstep of her friend Clay.  Over the coming days, Clay listens to the tapes, each side of which gives another of the “13 reasons why” Hannah took the step of killing herself.   The series is based on a book I haven’t read but, by all means, is decidedly less bloated than the near 13 hour Netflix adaptation.  But the adaptation benefits from showing the stories of the present day stories of the people mentioned on the tapes, and the affect that the airing of their stories and actions has on them.

What is key here is that 13 Reasons Why is an intelligently written, superbly acted piece of television that deals with bullying, depression, sexuality, assault, and suicide.  A bundle of light-hearted fun it isn’t.  And yet the structure of the series (showing the post-suicide stories) allows for it to be more than just a worthy after-school special type programme.

One would argue that this wasn’t even made for teens at all – indeed, inexplicably the BBFC in the UK have given this an 18 rating.  This is, presumably, because of the two rape sequences which, while uncomfortable, are certainly not of the ilk we are likely to find in an 18 film.  It seems totally counter-productive to have a series dealing with teen issues in an intelligent way being branded as unsuitable for teens under 18!  Perhaps there was a fear that, somehow, the option of suicide would look attractive to the viewer – but anyone seeing the final episode where we see the act itself will know that isn’t the case either.  Thankfully, the series is on Netflix and younger people will no doubt have access to it anyway – but a 15 certificate would certainly have been more apt and appropriate.

But 13 Reasons Why is most important because it deals with mental health issues – with depression and suicide – without lecturing, and without talking down to the viewer, and without trivialising it.  In fact, the term “depression” is barely mentioned at all.   But this is the topic that dare not speak its name, of course.  We don’t talk about mental health.  But here it is “discussed” along with teen issues “responsibly.”  A number of episodes have warnings about the content before they start.  The first episode has helpline numbers before it.  And there is a documentary appendix episode dealing with the issues featured in the series.

All of this, and yet any adult who has gone through mental health issues has to ponder quite what the point of those phone numbers are.  We should seek help if we are going through the problems featured in the series, we are told.  And yet there are thousands of us with mental health issues who have come forward and asked for help with our condition and yet cannot receive any.  We are told on the NHS in the UK of a year-long waiting list for counselling, for example.  It is rather scary that a TV drama can be more responsible about the damage mental health issues can do than our own health system or our own government in recognising its failings.

But I have written about that at length elsewhere, and this is about the series.  The “13 reasons” are spread over 13 episodes and, as some others have noted, this is too many.  Quite easily, there are occasions where two reasons could have fitted into one episode, for example.  The central episodes, directed by Gregg Araki, are bloated and move very slowly before the series gathers pace again around episode 10.

As much as I admire and “liked” the series, though, there is a feeling that the final instalment is unsatisfactory.  The realms of possibility are stretched, as not one, not two, not three, but four students in the same group of friends get their hands on guns – and we’re not told of the consequences of this in most cases.  Instead of giving us a neater ending, the series makes the mistake of making sure it is left open for a second season.  It’s the one thing that lets the programme down.  All of this good work, this great writing and wonderful acting, is jeopardised because the programme makers/Netflix wanted to make sure they still had a story to tell if a second season was decided upon.

Sometimes a story just needs to be told and then finish – especially when adapting a novel, which obviously does have an ending.  In fact, the problem here is that, rather than giving the viewer the idea that there is a second season in the offing, it gives the impression that someone forgot to make a final episode – because episode 13 acts like a penultimate one, not a final one.   And this is such a shame.

But even this error of judgement can’t undo the good work here.  Dylan Minnette gives one of the best performances in a TV series I have seen for a very long time – and one of the most nuanced accounts of a “troubled teen” I’ve seen in film or TV.  Everything about the performance rings true.  The same is true for Katherine Langford as Hannah, although she, ironically, has less to work with – not least because of those bloated episodes in the centre of the series, and the fact that she is only on screen for around half of the running time.

As a final note, Netflix chose to release all of the episodes of the series in one go – and this was possibly a mistake.  This is not binge-watch television, and it really doesn’t work well when watched in that way as it slowly numbs the viewer to each new event that is revealed in the story of Hannah Baker, and nothing becomes shocking.  While there is a “thriller” – even a “whodunit” – element to the story, that isn’t what this is about, and a weekly episode format would have worked better.  But it is what it is – an intelligent, gripping, and responsible series that deals with teen life in an undeniably adult way, and in a way that most dramas simply don’t have the balls to do.

Advertisements

Homevideo (2011)

homevideo 2

A few years ago, I wrote and published a young adult novel, Breaking Point, about homophobic bullying in schools.  The first section of the book deals with an incident in which the bully videos his victim as he is stripped and thrown into the showers in the changing rooms, and how that video makes its way around the school.  In Breaking Point, the incident is just one of many problems facing the victim, but in the film Homevideo (Germany, 2011), this kind of event is fully explored and is extended to make a ninety minute film.

The set-up in Homevideo is slightly different.  Here, Jakob (played by Deutschland 83‘s Jonas Nay) records himself masturbating, but then his mother inadvertently lends out the video camera (complete with the memory card) and the footage ends up in the wrong hands.  Before long, the footage is circulated online, and Jakob is both ridiculed and ostracised.   Interestingly, in the same year, another film, The Suicide Room, a Polish film, also dealt with cyber bullying, this time with video footage of a dare in which two male teens kiss at a party being circulated.  While both films deal well with their subject matter, Homevideo tells its story in a much more traditional manner and, while I like The Suicide Room, it is probably the better film because of it.

Unlike my own book and The Suicide RoomHomevideo is not about gay teenagers or homophobic bullying, although there is a short, undeveloped scene in which it is intimated that one of the two boys behind the video going online might be turned on by it.  However, Jakob is a shy, somewhat socially awkward teenager as is the case in the other two stories as well.  One wonders how the story might have been different if this was not the case – what if the boy at the centre of the story was one of the most popular kids in school?  Would the effects be the same?  And, if not, what would they be?   Jakob’s story is also complicated by the break-up of his parents’ marriage at the same time, with his mother moving out to live with her female lover.

Homevideo-9

Jonas Nay, looking even more young and innocent than in the recent hit series Deutschland 83, puts in a fine performance as Jakob, and ultimately holds the film together, appearing in most scenes.  He has the difficult job of making a withdrawn, sometimes exasperating, and certainly complex, character likeable.  However, the script here also deserves a special mention, dealing with its subject without lecturing its audience about the evils of the internet and making its characters fully-rounded and believable.  What perhaps is most important here is that the film (along with The Suicide Room) highlights the kind of bullying that can’t be easily stopped or even easily identified.  It is also bullying by humiliation, and therefore rarely talked about by victims until things reach breaking point.

The sad thing about the film is its lack of availability to a non-German speaking audience.  The only DVD available is in German (as you would expect), but without foreign language subtitles – although the tech-savvy can buy the DVD and pair it up with the non-professional English subtitles that are lurking around in the corners of the internet and, in this case, are more than competent.  But its lack of availability is a shame, for this is a fine film and, as with The Suicide Room, deserves to be widely seen.  Maybe with Jonas Nay now becoming known outside Germany, an English  release of Homevideo may follow.

Breaking Point and Breaking Down

 

bullying

The sudden spate of publicity about “Breaking Point” over the last week or so has made me revisit the idea of a follow-up book.  The following is a personal piece about the writing of the novel and the motivations behind it.  It was useful to write to put my own thoughts in order but, also, I thought it might be useful to read for those who might be encouraged to read the book in the coming weeks thanks to the recent publicity on Twitter.  If this little essay comes over as a vanity project, it’s not the intention.  It’s more like a private journal entry being made public, a stream-of-consciousness in which I attempt to put some thoughts and ideas in order. 

*

Life has a strange way of surprising us when we least expect it.  I published Breaking Point as an e-book back in 2011, and sold around six copies over the space of eighteen months.  This wasn’t devastating, but instead totally expected.  After all, Breaking Point is a novel that centres on the subject of homophobic bullying in schools.  It’s hardly bestseller material.  What’s more, it sits in a kind of no-man’s–land between a young adult book and an adult book.  Sure,  for the most part it revolves around a group of sixteen year olds, but they act and speak in a way us adults try to forget they are capable of.

In order to have a bit of a break from writing my PhD thesis, I revised Breaking Point in late 2012 and reissued it in February 2013.  I found that the world was very different in 2013 than in 2011.  Twitter had suddenly become a great marketing tool, a way to reach out and tell people about the book.  In the space of eleven months, seven thousand copies of Breaking Point have now been downloaded.  I’ll admit, many of these were during free promotions etc, but nobody writes a first novel for it to make money, but in the hope that it will be read.  By someone.

A few weeks back, I was able to self-publish Breaking Point in paperback.  I knew then that very few copies would shift – most people who wanted to read it had already done so through the e-book.  But at least the paperback allows the book to reach school libraries, for example – and I hope that is what happens.   Around the same time, things took an unexpected turn when I was contacted by Amanda Taylor from the University of Central Lancashire who wanted to talk to me about the book in relation to the Social Work Book Club – this, too, has resulted in publicity of the book through Twitter and elsewhere.

The comments about the book, and the reviews on Amazon, have often been touching and moving.  I have received private messages on Twitter from people who have read the book, and received emails too.   I’m still partly in shock about this, despite the fact that the book is only doing what it set out to do in the first place.

What is that, exactly?

Well, I guess the aims were twofold.  Firstly I wanted to write a gay-themed work that didn’t resort to long passages of sex to try and get the reader to part with their cash or their time.  As a gay man, I find it really quite offensive that filmmakers and many authors think we only want to read gay-themed stories if they contain an abundance of nudity and sex – that these directors and writers are mostly gay men themselves only compounds the problem, making it appear that the LGBTs of this world are interested in one thing only.  I don’t believe that’s true.   I have been into Waterstone’s book shop and asked where the LGBT fiction can be found, and been told “it’s under ‘erotica’”.   What the bloody hell is it doing under “erotica?”  Well, part of the reason, I guess, is that most of the gay fiction out there today does have a substantial erotic element.   Fifty Shades of Grey wouldn’t raise eyebrows amongst LGBTs, such subject matter is par for the course for gay fiction.  Even today, the act of sex seems to define who and what a gay man (or woman) is.  I find that scary and sad in equal measure.

I think most of us would be just as happy finding mirrors of ourselves on the silver screen.  And I don’t mean mirrors of who society thinks we are, but mirrors of who we really are.  There is no place for a stereotype in 2013.  We are, after all, individuals.  For all the talk of the “LGBT community”, we are still not clones of each other, or definitely going to like and admire each other just because we are sexually attracted to a particular gender.  It’s lunacy.  We wouldn’t expect all heterosexuals to be the same and like the same things and people just because they are all attracted to the opposite sex.

So, I wanted to write a book that didn’t rely on cheap thrills to get an audience. And I wanted to write a book where the gay characters didn’t live in a separate world to straight characters – again, this seems to be something that only happens in the world of gay-themed independent (American) filmmaking.   But the second major thing I wanted to do was to give a certain group of people a voice.

I wrote earlier about how we perceive fifteen and sixteen year olds, and how they really act and talk.  The bullying in Breaking Point centre on a type that is not talked about in the press or on TV, and concentrates very much on embarrassment and humiliation.  The reason we don’t hear about this as much is because the victims don’t want to talk about it.  While the incidents within the book didn’t happen to me, they are nearly all inspired by personal stories people have written on the web or from the very few newspaper articles that mention this type of behaviour.  The victims don’t want to talk about it – and understandably so, and so Breaking Point was intended to give those victims a voice, and to bring these issues out into the open.  I never intended to provide answers or resolutions to the problems.  That’s not my job, and neither am I qualified to do such a thing.  I don’t think there are solutions, certainly not blanket ones that work in every case.  If there were, we wouldn’t still be having this problem.

The reason for me writing this blog post is because I am trying to get my thoughts in order as to where to go next.  For me, the answer is an obvious one.  In order to finish what I have started, the rest of the story has to be told.  Bullying doesn’t end with the last day of school – either for the victims or the bullies.  The repercussions are there for a long time, in some cases throughout the person’s life.   The victim doesn’t walk out of the school gates on that last day, start smiling, and float through the next few years unaffected by what has happened.  I was diagnosed with depression two years after leaving school, and with bipolar ten years after that – which I still have, albeit nicely under control.  These kind of after effects are what I want to use as the backbone for “Breaking Down”, the tentative title of the follow-up to Breaking Point. 

I wrote a blogpost earlier in the year about cinematic depictions of mental health issues, and I face the same quandary as the films I discuss there:  how do you make the depiction of depression realistic and sympathetic, but also make it entertaining?  A novel has to be entertaining, after all.  Well, unless it’s written by Henry James, but let’s not go there.  And this is where I am falling down at the moment.  I know how the plot needs to unfold, I know how I want to depict the issues it raises, but I still need to find a way to do that in an entertaining way that makes people want to read the next page.   And that’s not going to be easy.

Will Breaking Down ever get finished?  I hope so, not least because I like the few chapters that have already been written.  But for it to be successful in any way, it has to concentrate on the individual experience, and not resort to the stereotypes that have plagued gay and lesbian film and books, and depictions of mental illness, for so many years.

For those that have read Breaking Point, or helped to spread the word, I shout out a huge “thank you” – the idea of seven thousand people owning  a copy of my book would have been laughable just a year ago.  So, thank you for making 2013 a memorable and very special year.