Netflix’s latest awards-film cycle finally wrapped up last week, having yielded an Oscar apiece for Marriage Story and the exceptional documentary American Factory, and a disappointing shutout for The Irishman, which will nonetheless live on in streaming eternity. The next round will start up soon enough, as the glitzier big-name titles on its 2020 roster pop up at various festivals. For now, however, a brief off-season ensues, as the streaming giant renews its focus on the cheaper, more televisually scaled films that the term “Netflix movie” initially connoted.
Which is not to say they can’t be a big deal. In streaming terms, the arrival of the somewhat awkwardly titled To All the Boys: PS I Still Love You on the Netflix menu last week was a blockbuster-scale event. Cannily timed for Valentine’s Day, it’s been as eagerly awaited by legions of young women, in particular, as any big-screen young adult franchise film. Rarely has Netflix yielded a sequel by such popular demand. When Susan Johnson’s sweetly, imaginatively styled teenage romcom To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before landed in summer 2018, it became a genuine word-of-mouth phenomenon: Netflix, always cagily selective about revealing its viewing figures, claimed it was one of the most-streamed original films they’d ever produced. Expect the new film to break that somewhat invisible record.
As sequels go, To All the Boys: PS I Still Love You delivers on the necessary promises. Most of the original cast has returned, with the hugely appealing Lana Condor again leading proceedings as wholesome, lovelorn high-schooler Lara Jean, now dealing with a second crush after having secured the boy of her dreams. The mild, kind-hearted humour and well-cushioned heartache of the first film are also more or less replicated. It just has the problem shared by many a romantic comedy sequel: that untying a previous happy ending is never quite as satisfying as knotting it to begin with. The first film’s director, Susan Johnson, has departed; in her place, Michael Fimognari, cinematographer on both films, has taken the reins. He once more gives the material the kind of distinctive visual style, in sharp boiled-sweet colours, that rarely gets lavished on teen comedies, though his touch is a little less tender than Johnson’s.
It’s a markedly less cheery female-centred Netflix film that has been in my thoughts more this week, however: Horse Girl, one of the first titles from this year’s Sundance festival crop to go directly to streaming, and one that deserves a higher profile. Reviews were mixed when this brittle psychological study premiered in snowy Utah last month, unsurprisingly so for a film that begins as one thing and curdles strangely and solemnly into another; I tuned in with modest expectations, only to have them excitingly challenged.
It’s a startling, image-changing showcase for Alison Brie, the vibrant star of Netflix’s superb wrestling series Glow. Together with director Jeff Baena, she’s written herself an unnerving, against-type character in Sarah, a lonely, geeky young woman who loves horses, works in an art supply shop, and in the film’s opening stages seems like a slightly washed-out spin on the “manic pixie dreamgirl”: that generic stereotype that tends to populate cutesier Sundance indies than this one. The longer Horse Girl probes its protagonist’s ostensibly unremarkable life, however, the more complex and fragile her mental state is revealed to be. As she hovers on the brink of a successful relationship, she falls prey to increasingly feverish paranoid delusions: with skin-prickling delicacy, Brie plays an introvert being eaten from the inside by her psyche. It’s one of the best, bravest performances of the year so far, in a Netflix film to which few will be clamouring for a sequel. But it shouldn’t be passed over.
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An exquisite Criterion Collection box set gathering six of the late French auteur’s radiantly stylised works, the melancholy whimsy of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, of course, among them.