I make a regular sweep of the new releases on Netflix, and have been particularly interested by the Netflix Original properties, from shows to films. Often they have a multi-cultural and international appeal, opening up windows on modern life in France, Belgium, the UK, and well beyond for US audiences. They are fascinating, often quite compelling, occasionally a little rough around the edges, but often give the sense of what it would be like to watch TV in all of those locales and see what the tastes and strengths are of TV and filmaking in those countries. This is true in part because Netflix partners with local film companies to produce shows and films that then might air on local TV but also internationally on Netflix.
This has the potential to really change the international presence of shows and films. We no longer have to go through the extreme time-lag that can happen while companies hammer out deals for distribution with international partners, if a show is picked up internationally at all. So much visual culture remains confined by national boundaries due to the nuances of distribution deals.
One of many Netflix Original properties I’ve watched lately is the 90 minute film iBoy, starring Game of Thrones‘ Maisie Williams, the great Miranda Richardson, and Penny Dreadful’s Rory Kinnear. I had heard the film pop up in conversation online since UK audiences had already seen it, but when it resurfaced into Netflix’s “recently added” lineup, I bookmarked it to watch when I had the chance.
The film is based on a Young Adult novel by Kevin Brooks, and though it features teens as the main characters, the film is nothing like a fairy tale, though it may have darker elements of wish-fulfillment. One of the things that sets it apart from other sci-fi themed visual stories I’ve seen lately is the kind of “unblinking” gaze it presents on suffering and violence without being a purely action film. In other words, it’s a bit brutal in reassuring ways.
This story features Lucy (Maisie Williams) who has been assaulted by a local gang for mysterious reasons, and her friend Tom (Bill Millner) who interrupts the attack and is shot, fragmenting his cellphone and lodging parts of the phone in his brain. In the resultant recovery from this inoperable injury, Tom develops increasingly god-like powers over technology, and decides to go after the gang who hurt his friend. But the war he begins to wage becomes much larger as he strikes at the roots of the crime controlling his impoverished housing estate. Meanwhile, he tries to help Lucy come back from her trauma and the two have pressing real-life concerns like important exams and how to fit back in to their previous social lives.
The story is actually told in a straightforward and simple way, which is not to say it’s simplistic. Tom is our main perspective character and we alone know of the alter-ego he establishes and to what degree his powers have become frightening or are still under control. From a quiet, reticent teen, he morphs into a quietly powerful being in convincing ways, and at the apex of his control, we see a dangerous over-confidence and an almost inhumanness emerging. Significantly, the story hits a bedrock of realism in that one individual, no matter how powerful, can rarely control every variable, and after all, this is an inexperienced teen trying to act out a complicated plan.
There’s an “uninflected” presentation of Tom, where the construction of the scenes and camera work seems to withhold judgement on his behavior, leaving the viewer to make those judgments for themselves. The camera highlights certain beats where you might be tempted to analyze whether Tom has gone too far or not, as if encouraging you to think about it, but doesn’t really go further toward telling you what to think.
There is implied sexual assault in the film, but the way in which its handled is interesting. Rather than shying away from the subject or using it simply as a plot point (and comics are accused of using sexual assault simply to prompt a revenge story, on a regular basis), it becomes a recurring subject and the filmmakers attempt to construct a narrative about victimhood that suggests a way through trauma into recovery. It will depend on the individual viewer whether they feel that narrative is successful or needs more development.
The film quality, the story structure, and the acting were all well-executed, and made for a surprising experience of a sci-fi/superhero story in a world I might not have otherwise encountered.
Of the Netflix Original films and shows I’ve seen, this is one of the strongest, and a number of them have been very good indeed. What seems important is not that every Original has dazzlingly high production values or superb acting, but that they keep being made, and in greater and greater variety. Because they do open up storytelling across boundaries and give viewers a greater ability to experience differing worldviews. Even when watching Originals produced in your home country, you are more likely to encounter creative visions that you would have missed otherwise. Here’s hoping this not only continues to be the trajectory of Netflix, but that other platforms follow this example of expansion.
Here’s the official trailer for iBoy, in case you haven’t seen it yet: