When you’re a teenager in the public school system, there are few things harder to be than yourself. Adolescence is such a volatile period of insecurity that kids often create their own protective shells just to get through the day. Being a sensitive guy with glasses, junior high was unremitting hell for me. The bullying endured by my fellow outcasts and I caused our identities to burrow deep inside ourselves, as if in hibernation. After graduation, the inner creativity I had been suppressing was liberated by the community I found at my high school drama club. Suddenly, I was gaining friendship and acceptance, yet I still hadn’t fully accepted myself. The comfort of a heightened neurotic persona was my armor of choice, and I embraced it from freshman year through twelfth grade. I’ll never forget explaining to a friend that my presence at a school dance was justified, even though I didn’t have a date, because, “I’m the comic relief.” That’s how I saw myself. Laughter was all I felt capable of acquiring.
“Everything Sucks!”, the new ten-part Netflix series created by Michael Mohan and Ben York Jones, does not sidestep these truths of teenage life. Set at a high school in Boring, Oregon (a real town, I checked) circa 1996, most of the show’s characters are so uncomfortable in their skin that they affect the sort of mannerisms some may dismiss as stereotypical. We have the uptight nerd with glasses, the irreverent clown, the grandstanding showboats and the endearingly awkward principal…all tropes we’ve seen countless times before. Yet there’s a reason why these tropes proliferate on and off the screen. They are the familiar roles people choose to inhabit, serving as both a safety net and a crutch. What makes this series a must-see is the character who breaks free from the role designated to her via peer pressure, allowing her to—as another kid observes—simply “exist.” That character is Kate Messner, played by Peyton Kennedy in a performance that is destined to rank among the year’s very best. As soon as she materializes onscreen, there is an urgency to her scenes that the rest of the show lacks. Kate is not an avid attention-seeker eager to mug for the lens. She prefers to be behind the camera at her AV Club, where she catches the eye of a smitten freshman, Luke (the superb Jahi Di’Allo Winston). She likes him too, but not in the way that he hopes.
Kennedy’s remarkable talent was apparent to me as soon as I saw her riveting lead performance in Anne Hamilton’s 2016 drama, “American Fable” (also currently streamable on Netflix). She navigated each step of her character’s evolution from timid youth to a fierce soul who will stand up for what’s right, even if it means going against her own family. The delicate nuance of this role was a far cry from the hilarious motormouthed energy she sported for four years on the Canadian kids show, “Odd Squad,” where she portrayed a no-nonsense doctor who’s oft-hollered catchphrase was, “What’s next?” That refrain certainly captures the essence of Kennedy’s artistry, which is as adventurous as it is versatile. When I interviewed the actress a year ago, she spoke of her determination to continuously stretch herself with every new role. “I think it’s really important for actors to constantly be doing roles that are different from what they’ve already done so that they are always working on their craft,” she told me. Not only is Kate Messner unlike any character Kennedy has played before, she is unlike any character that I’ve ever seen in a teen drama. Sure, we’ve grown more accustomed to seeing characters of different orientations represented on television, yet rarely has the coming-out story of a 14-year-old girl (played by an actual 14-year-old) been explored with as much insight and authenticity as it is here.
In many respects, “Everything Sucks!” could’ve easily taken place in any era. If anything, the pop culture staples on display prove just how little things have changed in terms of entertainment (“Star Wars,” “MST3K,” funny cat videos). Yet contrary to what some have surmised after a brief sampling, this show is not a stale “Stranger Things” imitation cashing in on our collective hunger for nostalgia (that would be last year’s remake of “It”). The decision to set this series in the mid-90s is a pointed one, and not just because it illuminates the limitations of landline phones. The intolerance facing LGBT Americans of any age was even worse in the 90s, causing teens to treat their gay and lesbian classmates with open contempt, either labeling them “homos” or assuring them with the sanctimonious promise, “I’ll pray for you.” Luke’s single-minded pursuit of Kate is fueled by his raging hormones, reading into her comments (“You’re cute”) as affirmations of her mutual attraction. After being branded a “lesbo” by her secret crush, Emaline (Sydney Sweeney), Kate agrees to date Luke when he broadcasts his proposal to the entire student body. So enamored is Luke that he doesn’t realize how he has placed the girl he loves in an impossible situation. Even when she confesses to him—after their first kiss—that she’s a lesbian, he encourages her to remain in the relationship, enabling her to evade bullies while he gets to live out his fantasy.
All of this comes crashing down in “Sometimes I Hear My Voice,” the show’s sixth and finest episode, sublimely directed by Ry Russo-Young, who once told me in an interview that she was “craving to see more women onscreen who were really complex. Women who weren’t just there to aid the guy and become a sounding board for his problems.” Since the dawn of celluloid, Hollywood escapism has been prone to crafting female characters that serve no purposes other than to fulfill the desires of men. Romances that require either partner to change themselves in order to preserve the relationship are routinely celebrated in cinema despite reeking of denial, never more egregiously than in “Grease.” I was Kennedy’s age when I performed that musical at my high school, and I knew fully well that it was not written for actual teenagers. Mohan and Jones aren’t aiming for their series to achieve the brutal realism of a film like “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” directed by Todd Solondz (whose every film could easily be titled, “Everything Sucks!”). This show certainly has its share of silliness and predictability, but none of these quibbles negate the inherent honesty of its story, and whenever Kate is center stage, it is flat-out wonderful. Her achingly beautiful rendition of “Rocket Man” on the piano serves as the poignant prelude to episode six, while further illustrating how a bond unquestionably exists between her and Luke. Both of them have lost parents, and both are seeking companionship. So when Luke buys two tickets for him and Kate to see her favorite singer, Tori Amos, perform in Portland, how can she not resist?
This gesture of kindness laced with manipulation leads to the defining sequence of episode six, and of the entire season. As Kate stands among the Portland crowd, watching her hero onstage, her attention drifts over to a female couple in the audience. At first, Kate can barely believe what she’s seeing, but as she continues to look at the women unapologetically embracing each other, tears start to form in her eyes. Cinematographer Elisha Christian (“Columbus”) has already proven to be a master at lensing the human face, particularly when it exudes a luminous sense of longing. The close-up of Kate at the concert is the moment when Kennedy becomes a full-fledged star. Her performance, bursting with the relief of her epiphany, makes this scene one of the most overwhelmingly cathartic moments in television history. Empowered with the knowledge that her orientation is undeserving of shame, Kate lets her raw feelings spill out with bruising bluntness while breaking up with Luke, telling him, “You like the idea of me.” It will take a few more episodes for Luke to fully come to terms with how he had idealized Kate in his mind, ultimately reaching a sense of mature closure that reminded me of “Splendor in the Grass,” when he acknowledges that he was “better for loving her.”
Whereas lesser high school shows put their characters through humiliating makeovers, “Everything Sucks!” gives us a heroine who accepts herself on her own terms. There are few acts more heroic these days than speaking your truth, as demonstrated by female warriors such as Rachael Denhollander, Emma Gonzalez and Salma Hayek. The impact of their bravery speaks for itself. What this brief yet unforgettable scene illustrates so indelibly is that when people are open about who they are, it will inspire others to live their truth as well. Kate’s cheering in the crowd suddenly takes on a whole new meaning. No longer will she consider herself an anomaly. She has found her place.
“Everything Sucks!” and “American Fable” are both available on Netflix. To read my full interview with Kennedy, click here.