HEY, peeps! Holy freakin’ moly, here we are, Friday again. WOO HOOO!
This week, I want to give a shout-out to someone who was part of my pop culture milieu back in the day before I kind of lost touch with her and then BOOM she comes roaring back in a stellar, nuanced performance in Netflix’s ode to the 80s, Stranger Things.
I’m talking here about Winona.
No, no. Not Wynonna Earp. We already fangirled over her and her show (and we will again, but not today). Rather, Winona Ryder.
There are no doubt people reading this here blog who are all, “what do you mean, ‘back in the day’?”
I mean, friends, one of the major Gen X pop culture faces in the early 90s. There was a time — here, let me get my corncob pipe and rocking chair for reminiscing — when you couldn’t spit without hitting a media story about Winona Ryder and her movies (and yeah, we walked to school in the snow barefoot both ways and we liked it because at least we got to see Winona Ryder movies at the one town theater, dammit).
She’s been around a while, playing often edgy, dark, and carefully layered roles since I first developed a slight crush on her when she was a moody emo-gothish girl with a silly streak in 1988’s deliciously kitschy-macabre Beetlejuice.
The late 80s and early 90s seemed to be a veritable boomtown of Ryder, as she was in several movies during those years, starting with her debut in Lucas (1986), then went on to do Heathers (cult fave), Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael, Mermaids (Golden Globe nomination), Edward Scissorhands (she was linked romantically with Johnny Depp for a time), and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. She won a Golden Globe for best supporting actress for her role in Age of Innocence (1993), for which she was also nominated for an Oscar. She scored another Oscar nomination in 1994 for best actress in Little Women.
Some of you may remember her in Reality Bites, a Gen X WTF do we do now after college movie; Alien: Resurrection, and Girl, Interrupted (1999), based on the life of writer Susanna Kaysen, who spent 18 months in a mental hospital in the 1960s. Ryder’s portrayal of Kaysen was riveting, brutal, and heart-wrenching. She also served as the executive producer of that movie and in 2000, got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Since then, she’s been nominated for a couple of Screen Actors’ Guild awards and she clearly continues to take roles that I consider off-the-beaten path.
Her personal life, however, was the stuff of tabloids in the late 90s and early 2000s. There was, for example, the shoplifting arrest in 2001 and her battles with anxiety and depression. Years later, she would talk about that incident and open up about her personal demons. Kudos to her for owning that.
Anyway, Ryder has thus been a fixture of sorts in my life and in the lives of a bunch of us Gen Xers who came of age about the time she was putting out her first movies.
So imagine my surprise when I heard she was in the creepy-cool Netflix original series Stranger Things, which debuted on July 15th.
Winona Ryder? Seriously?
So I watched. And watched. And watched some more. And holy 1980s cigarettes and cheap beer, she’s mesmerizing.
Stranger Things, for those not in the know, takes place in Indiana in 1983. Winona Ryder plays Joyce Byers, a hassled single mom with two sons. Jonathan is in his teens, and he seems to have taken over some of the parenting roles in the house for his younger brother Will, who’s in middle school. And, frankly, for his mom, who carries damage that local townspeople hint about but never fully reveal.
Will runs with three other boys his age and they are the quintessential geeks. They play Dungeons and Dragons, contact each other on ol’ skool walkie talkies, and have a bond with the school’s science teacher, who lets them noodle on the school’s A/V equipment after hours.
Well, Stranger Things takes off in the first freaking episode, in which Will disappears after an evening of D&D with his buddies (no spoiler, kids — it’s all over the webz). He’s riding his bike home and stranger things are indeed afoot. Strange and freaking hair-raising scary, as we see what causes Will to disappear and we know right off the bat that shit is gettin’ real in this small town.
Throw in a secretive lab in the community, even more secretive scientists, a bunch of cover-ups, a strange young girl who clearly has escaped from the lab, a local police chief who is sorely tested by all the sudden random violence in a town where generally nothing happens, Will’s disappearance, and you’ve got a recipe for some gripping TV.
The entire cast is strong, but Ryder is brilliant as Will’s mom. She’s struggling with money, struggling with her life, her ex-husband is a douche, the chief of police doesn’t believe her wild tales that she’s communicating with Will (I’m not going to spoil anything for you; go watch it) and that she’s seen “something.” We watch her sitting in a darkened living room clutching the phone, trembling fingers holding a cigarette as it slowly burns down toward her flesh and we totally get why people think she’s nuts.
This is a woman haunted, and she moves with an abrupt kinetic energy, slightly hunched over, like someone who has had to keep her head down and bull through whatever is in her way. And you get the feeling she’s spent her life with something in her way. But goddamn, she doesn’t care. Her freaking SON is missing, and she will do whatever it takes to bring him home. So underneath her demons, there’s a down-to-earth scrappiness about her that you root for. You want Joyce to tear down heaven and earth to find Will, and you want her to finally get some recognition for how damn hard she works to keep it together for her boys.
And yes, this is indeed an ode to the 80s and an ode to that era’s creepfests. It was developed by Matt and Ross Duffer, twin brothers out of North Carolina who love them some horror and sci fi films (you may know the Duffer Brothers from their work on Wayward Pines).
Here, in ST — well, imagine if the original Poltergeist was hanging around with ET at ye olde movie night and then got picked up by another ode to the 80s (okay, ode to 1979), Super 8 and Stand By Me and they all got drunk in the woods and then…bad things happen. That’s Stranger Things.
For me, ST is also a walk down memory lane for those of us of a certain generation. The sets and clothing and the material culture of the 1980s — ah, the good ol’ days. When nobody walked around with a damn smartphone attached to their hands and kids actually WENT OUTSIDE AND RODE THEIR BIKES TO SCHOOL OMG STOP THE MADNESS DID THAT ACTUALLY HAPPEN.
Yes. Yes, it did. And I was one of those kids, who ran in a group and we rode our bikes everywhere and spent practically every waking moment outside. I actually like being the age I am, because I’m an immigrant to the digital divide rather than a native. It means I speak two languages: pre-device and device, and I think because I didn’t grow up with devices or the interwebz, I know there’s a world beyond that, and I actually still interact with people FACE TO FACE and ON THE PHONE OMG NO FREAKING WAY. Like people do in ST. Like they have to.
So I’m loving Stranger Things and trippin’ on my own nostalgia (though I have caught a couple of anachronisms). I love the Twin Peaks and 80s feel, injected with the energy and earnestness of a group of kids that I probably would have hung out with, as they try to find their friend and figure out what the hell is going on in their normally mundane small town.
And of course, Winona. Every time she’s on screen here, you can’t look away because she so deftly pulls you into her life and her character. Ryder is so freaking comfortable in Joyce’s skin that holy shit, I don’t even recognize her as anything BUT Joyce Byers, hardscrabble single mom searching desperately for her son.
Every character in this series is well-cast, and you get some super-strong performances, well-paced narratives, great lines, and major high creepy quotient and escalating tension. The kids in ST are superb, and if you don’t find yourself remembering your middle school and high school days, then I think you need to check to see what happened to your soul.
This one’s a keeper, friends. I recommend you have some buddies over and do some binge-watching. Season 1 (eight episodes) is now streaming at Netflix.
Tell Joyce I sent you.
Happy Friday, happy fandom!