It must be such a rush to get a project greenlit on Netflix. The streaming giant has gone from digital underdog to top dog in terms of giving creators the license and financial freedom they need to turn their lofty ideas into a reality. Netflix’s unique, seemingly unlimited approach to giving filmmakers of all stripes a shot is almost reminiscent of what creative-friendly studios like United Artists did in the New Hollywood era of the 1970s and early ‘80s. But that artistic structure came tumbling down because the very privilege allotted to filmmakers bred a certain excess that led to diminishing quality. The same cracks might be beginning to show in Netflix’s method, specifically in their latest series The OA. Created by and starring Brit Marling and directed by Zal Batmanglij, the show has elicited polar responses based on the first season’s intentionally open-ended mysteries, which most critics say goes too far and are too obscure for its own good. But detractors need only watch the pair’s 85-minute feature film debut, 2011’s Sound of My Voice, to see why volume — not creativity — may be their worst enemy.
At its core, The OA is about storytelling, the need for Marling’s wayward character Prairie to narrativize her personal trauma of being held captive against her will, so that she can reach a sense of transcendental closure via new age mysticism with the help of friends who become loyal followers. This is virtually the exact same thematic push as Sound of My Voice, which is about a young woman named Maggie (played by Marling) who amasses followers to join her in a small cult because she can allegedly save them from harm since she may or may not be from 2054.
The film’s strongest scene occurs when Maggie confronts with Peter (Christopher Denham), a documentary filmmaker attempting to infiltrate the cult and expose it as a hoax, by forcing him to discuss his mother’s death and abuse at the hands of his grandfather. In both The OA and Sound of My Voice, early traumatic experiences inflict irreparable damage that informs your entire life.
But the similarities get more specific from there. In fact, the show might as well be a soft TV reboot of the movie. Both of Marling’s characters tell their stories while a handful of people listen with rapt attention in an anonymous suburban locale; both feature secret handshake-esque, dance-like movements and bodily scars that allow access to the group and beyond; both hinge on a young blonde girl being taken from her parental figures; both feature a dramatic shift because a character sings a semi-recognizable song a capella; both use surreal imagery surrounding bathtubs; both even have numbered title cards to denote chapters and episodes. And on and on.
Honestly, the dialogue could be interchangeable: “Who took your power away from you? Who made you feel so powerless you’ve become obsessed with control? With thinking everything through instead of feeling anything,” says Maggie, or Prairie, or Marling herself (hint: it’s Maggie).
Marling and Batmanglij seem predisposed with questions of faith as the ambiguous endings of both the show and film don’t offer any real answers to the question of whether Maggie or Prairie are the saviors they promise to be. The OA and Sound of My Voice are at their best when they focus on the intoxicating Marling herself and keep you guessing. The ambiguity is only another affirmation of those leaps of faith.
This seems like an adequate puzzle to tinker with when it’s 90 minutes or under, but when it’s pushing seven hours, like the first season of The OA the mysticism becomes laughable and much easier to pull apart. Perhaps enduring the show itself is the point, and is an extension of Marling’s favorite theme: believing for the sake of believing. But while that might make a good movie, The OA proves Marling and Batmanglij needed the budgetary and time restraints of independent move making (especially considering the show and the movie come to the same conclusion, say the exact same thing, and end on strikingly similar notes).
Netflix has a great eye for talent, but sometimes, Netflix isn’t the best venue for those talented ideas. Netflix’s open-scripted formats and ability to hide viewership numbers leave creators almost completely without boundaries — the budget being their only real concern. The OA’s excess came solely from what happens when independent filmmakers suddenly find themselves with all of Netflix’s resources at their disposal and the belief that they should put everything out there. This same Netflix excess is what befell The Get Down, Baz Luhrmann’s absurdly expensive and epically bad ode to 1980s hip-hop. This is a creator who had already decided it was a good idea to make The Great Gatsby into a $100-million 3D feature film. Luhrmann, like many other creators, needs boundaries to push against, otherwise he’ll fall into lengthy, expensive traps of his own making.
Finding a creative voice, or team of voices, and letting them run free with streaming budgets, a run time that they set for themselves, and the guarantee of undisclosed ratings is a sure fire way to help set those traps. In The OA, an eight-episode exploration of mysticism and belief felt like string cheese being pulled apart in front of the audience’s eyes. Letting Marling center herself in a narrative that takes place over seven hours instead of 90 minutes significantly detracts from her charismatic and slightly dangerous cult-like charm. The potential of having questions answered at all in the second season negates her views of belief entirely. In short, what makes her voice potent in movies became weak and diluted without the boundaries that independent movie making provides.
Fans of The OA will find themselves hoping for a second season while having no idea what Season 2 could be about, and the creators are probably in the same boat. Season 1’s vague and unforgivable ending left fans wondering where the show would go next and had haters pissed off that it would still continue. Netflix almost always gives its original series a second season, so expect there to be even more questions raised about the Original Angel, shared trauma, potentially benevolent interpretive dance, and the fallout from that out-of-left-field school shooting. But if its anything like Sound of My Voice, The OA benefits from being obscured and abruptly stopped from proceeding on to an even more ridiculous new age narrative. Less, in this case, is much, much more.