“Mean Girls.” “Freaks and Greeks.” “Heathers.”
Perhaps you’ve heard: High school is a treacherous place.
Students are ruthless to one another. Hormones are bad-behavior accelerants. And adults? Utterly clueless.
Now throw in social media-shaming, sexism and suicide, and you have the basic building blocks for the addictive mystery that is “13 Reasons Why.”
Directed by Tom McCarthy (“Spotlight”), this Netflix original series is based on Jay Asher’s 2007 young adult novel of the same name. A girl ends her own life, but why? The answer slowly unfolds over 13 episodes, each an hour long and all of which began streaming Friday. Stock up on provisions because you won’t be leaving the couch for half a day.
Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) appears more confident and insightful than most of her 17-year-old peers at Liberty High so, when she commits suicide, her parents, the faculty and most of the student body appear stunned. She did, however, leave behind a series of “old school” cassette tapes that provide clues to why she ended her life – and who’s to blame.
Thirteen of Hannah’s former friends, tormentors and acquaintances receive packages shortly after her death containing the recordings and a map. Speaking from beyond the grave, she explains they are receiving this package because they somehow contributed to her demise.
The group must listen to all seven cassettes and follow her instructions on where to find clues. If they don’t? Their secrets will be publicly divulged. Just how Hannah will exact this posthumous punishment is part of the mystery.
Her mild-mannered friend and admirer Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) is stunned to discover himself among the 13. He’s not like most of the other students at Liberty who subsist on making each other miserable. Or so he thought.
To understand where he fits into the puzzle, Clay must listen through all the tapes. Along the way, he learns the dark secrets kept by those around him, and the lengths to which they will go to keep those secrets hidden.
“13 Reasons Why” plays out over a series of flashbacks, effortlessly hopscotching through different timelines. What could have easily been one more high school drama about bullies and victims, jocks and nerds, popular girls and outcasts, is instead a nuanced story about the complexities of relationships between friends, families and lovers.
The talents of Minnette and newcomer Langford carry much of the story. They are convincing high school outsiders – he still wears a bike helmet, likes science fiction and pays attention to lunar eclipses.
She’s insightful, has a sophisticated sense of humor and is individualistic – all deficits for a girl who wants to fit in at a new high school. Together they bring a depth and charm to their roles, and there’s a chemistry between them that is believable.
In this series, written by Brian Yorkey and executive produced by Selena Gomez, Hannah and Clay are also mirrors that reflect how different the teen experience can be for girls versus boys.
On one tape, Hannah says, “You probably think I’m taking it too seriously. … Here’s the thing. You’ve never been a girl.”
Early on in the series, she gets labeled as a “slut” through a photo posted on social media and more old-fashioned forms of humiliation: gossip and writing on the bathroom walls.
It makes her a leper among many of the other girls – some of whom she used to call friends – and a target for leering boys’ lust and ridicule. When she is cited on a secretly circulated “Hot List,” the bright, multifaceted Hannah is objectified into Liberty High’s “Best Ass.”
When she complains to the naive Clay, he asks “but isn’t that a compliment?” It’s one of many moments that deftly captures the encroaching and unfair realities of adult life.
“13 Reasons Why” is not just about internal and personal struggles – it’s also fun to watch, told at a pace that engages even the most distracted of viewers (essentially anyone with cable or an Internet connection).
Scenes, events and details here also feel pleasantly retro – Clay rides a bike everywhere like it’s “E.T.” Other characters listen to Joy Division on cassette tape. The teens keep deep secrets from the adults a la “River’s Edge.”
Though most of the grown-ups are unbelievably checked out, Hannah’s mother, played by Kate Walsh (“Private Practice”), is so convincingly devastated by her only daughter’s death she makes the other adult characters here appear ridiculously one-dimensional.
And the melodrama of high school life can feel tedious at points, which is something you might not want to experience again, depending on where you stood (or stand) in your high school pecking order.
That social order at Liberty High is brought to life by a large cast of young actors who include Miles Heizer (Alex), Alisha Boe (Jessica) and Christian Navarro (Tony). They all have stories too, and demons, that cause them to act out in reckless, cruel and sometimes noble ways. But who knows, by the story’s end, maybe it’s Hannah who’s the tormentor, and they’re, in fact, the victims? Anything is possible in that confusing, parallel universe called high school.
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