Hello and welcome to my new column, Netflix and Smiff, which is in no way an example of thinking of a title and building a feature around it. Not at all.
This week I've mainly been watching 13 Reasons Why (Netflix), which has been equally praised for bringing teenage mental health into the spotlight and criticised for its depiction of suicide.
13 Reasons Why is the story of Hannah (charismatically played by Katherine Langford), a teen at Liberty High who grows to believe that the only way out is to kill herself. Bullied Hannah records a series of tapes explaining her decision, with each episode focusing on one tape, which typically highlights the actions of one person who is partly responsible for her demise.
The series is centred around Hannah and her classmate Clay (Dylan Minnette), who is our point of view. Clay is one of the few good guys in the show, but even he is not entirely blameless. The series kicks off with Clay receiving the tapes – some of the other kids have had them already – but he only listens to them one by one, which contributes to a sometimes frustratingly slow pace.
In Jay Asher's novel, on which 13 Reasons Why is based, Clay listens to all the tapes in one go, which makes much more sense. Instead, we get endless scenes where "unhelpful Yoda" Tony – by far the most annoying character – urges Clay to listen to the tapes. Get on with it, Clay!
13 Reasons Why is at its best in the scenes between Hannah and Clay, with Langford and Minnette sharing a chemistry that is often lacking in younger actors. Some of the other acting is sadly unconvincing, although Kate Walsh as Hannah's mum Olivia is excellent in a difficult role.
Too many of the other characters are two-dimensional. There's generic bad guy Justin, weird stalker loser Tyler and the oddly omnipresent Tony (a lot of the kids look much too old to be in high school, but Tony takes the biscuit. Guy looks older than me – and I've had a hard life.) Few of them make any impression and others have such generic faces it's hard to keep track of them. Also, I don't know about your high school, but nobody at mine was covered in tattoos. It feels weird.
As an exploration of how mental illness can grip a young mind, 13 Reasons Why ticks a lot of boxes. Hannah talks of feeling "lost" and "empty", which anyone who has experienced depression will empathise with a lot. The way her mental illness is displayed is subtle, helping to explain why her parents do not spot it. She finds it very difficult to ask for help and, when she manages to do so, the school counsellor Mr Porter badly lets her down.
Unfortunately it's impossible to fully recommend 13 Reasons Why. The series finale is particularly problematic, with its gratuitous depiction of Hannah's suicide itself, while it spends too much time setting up a needless second season – which has now been confirmed.
It is not just Hannah's suicide that is shown in far too graphic detail, as other scenes are lingered on unsympathetically. While the sexual assault of another character could have been used as an opportunity to explore issues of consent, instead it felt too much like a plot device, and another rape late in the series seemed altogether too much for a show aimed at young adults and teens.
13 Reasons Why is a deliberately tough watch, but while the idea is sound, the series is not all it could have been. Perhaps being condensed into half-hour episodes would have helped, or if they had they been released one a week so the repetitiveness was less obvious.
Alright, alright, alright. To lighten my mood, but sticking with the high-school theme, I turn to Richard Linklater's 1993 breakthrough Dazed and Confused (Netflix), which focuses on a large group of kids on the last day of school in 1976. It's fun spotting students who went on to be big stars, such as Ben Affleck, Parker Posey, Milla Jovovich and, of course, Matthew McConaughey.
Dazed and Confused shares one thing with 13 Reasons Why – a killer soundtrack – but it has an much, much more carefree feel. There is still bullying, but the hazing is more a half-arsed ritual, with the quiet ones who are singled out then brought into the fold with the cool kids.
Linklater's ear for dialogue is arguably the best in film (it peaked with the spectacular achievement that was 2014's award-hoovering Boyhood) – and seeing the kids goof around and shoot the shit is a genuine pleasure. Linklater expertly captures what it is like to be unsure of yourself but trying to fit in, a feeling all but the most hyper-confident of teens – hell, even adults – share.
Craving more of the impeccable Linklater, I follow up with Dazed and Confused's "spiritual sequel" Everybody Wants Some!! (Amazon Video) – not my exclamation marks, I stress. We've graduated from school to college now and we're embedded with baseball jocks, who don't lack confidence. Cleverly, we're not at college yet, but in the few days leading up to the start of classes. After all, our jocks aren't here to study, they're here to play ball and chase girls - or "pussy" as they'd say.
Our lead is Jake (a very good Blake Jenner) but this film thrives thanks to its ensemble cast. The word "banter" has become poisonous of late but the guys in Everybody Wants Some!! banter harmlessly and the script is, as you would expect from Linklater, a perfectly-observed delight.
It's not really a sports film, with so little baseball in it, but it still reminded me of Chad Harbach's baseball-themed college novel The Art of Fielding, which I can't recommend highly enough. The parallels with Boyhood are obvious too, as that film ended with lead Mason arriving at college.
Just like Dazed and Confused, there is no real plot as such, and the film is all the richer for it. Instead, we spend a couple of hours kicking around aimlessly – drinking, smoking and fucking – with a group of dudes (the film almost exclusively features dudes) who are on the cusp of adulthood. And it's funny. It's really funny. Funnier than Dazed and Confused, for my money.
Linklater excels at portraying this type of drifting coming-of-age story in an extraordinarily natural style. I can't wait to see what he comes up with next.