Margherita Mazzucco
Photo: Eduardo Castaldo (HBO)

Blood. Pain. Swelling. Lumpiness. Sweat, tears, hair, and confusion. A young girl on the verge of young-womanhood could be forgiven for assuming that her body exists in a state of open revolt, as if it is attempting to throw off the yoke of personhood by showing how deeply displeased it is with the being who steers it through the world. And if her own body has turned against her, is it any surprise that it sometimes feels as if the rest of the world has, too? Is it any wonder that the blood, pain, and lumpiness can seem to be just the tip of the iceberg?

That’s certainly true for Lenú. For Lila, they might not even rate a spot on the iceberg. Fear over menstruation can get in line; she’s got troubles enough.

Advertisement

Puberty is well-trodden territory in the realms of fiction, film, and television. That’s true not only of stories centered on characters this age—picture all the flashbacks in comedies in which our heroes have big hair, headgear, and zits. So, too, is the Ugly Ducking trope, in which an gawky youngster (usually a girl) grows into a beautiful swan, a most satisfactory conclusion. But My Brilliant Friend bypasses most of the tropes associated with adolescence, preferring to trace the parallel childhoods of two intelligent girls in a society which either undervalues or cannot sustain such gifts. Just as Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women bypasses many of the turns a reader may expect it to take, My Brilliant Friend sticks to its own path. And that path is a painful one, nearly all of the time.

It goes without saying that adolescence can be pretty awkward, too, and that descriptor can be just easily applied to My Brilliant Friend’s fascinating but ungainly third hour. Directed, as all episodes of this first season are, by Saverio Costanzo, “Le Metamorfosi (The Metamorphoses)” transitions from Lenú and Lila’s childhood into their young adulthood, ushering in both a new age of their friendship and a pair of new actors. Ludovica Nasti and Elisa Del Genio (the latter glimpsed briefly in a dream sequence) have been succeeded by Gaia Girace (Lila) and Margherita Mazzucco (Lenú); the other young actors have likewise handed off their fruit carts, shoemaking tools, and school uniforms to other young performers. Any bumpiness in the transition should not be laid at the feet of the actors, who continue to be almost uniformly excellent. The casting on this show is good. (More on that below.)

Advertisement

So if the awkwardness of My Brilliant Friend’s third outing has nothing to do with the new ensemble, then what’s the cause? Difficult to say. There’s no one factor that’s unsteadied the series (and it’s worth noting that the episode, while not as entrancing as its predecessors, is still pretty good overall with some moments as good or better as anything we’ve yet seen). Some of the tentativeness of the hour is likely the natural result of the changing of the guard. While Constanzo masterfully moves us from Nasti and Del Genio to Girace and Mazzucco over the course of one unsettling dream, this is a big cast of characters, and the roll-call credits, so useful in the previous episodes, aren’t much of a help when the faces are mostly new.

Still, that’s a minor (if real) inconvenience, and the benefits of a changing cast far outweigh the negatives. (More below.) So what else? Some of the trouble, such as it is, likely springs from the challenges of adaptation—while the previous two hours both had clear, gripping places to break the act, “Le Metamorfosi” spends so much time getting all the pieces into their new places that, when the wheels really start turning in earnest, it’s almost time to pack it in. The library awards lead to the high school conversation, which leads to the date, which leads to the earnest reunion of Lenú and Lila, and before you can say comfortable-elegant-footwear, the boxcutter’s out and we’re headed to the end credits. It’s not as though everything that comes before we discover Lila’s fraudulent library habits is dull. Quite the contrary. But it’s with that revelation that the episode finally begins to cohere, and at a fairly late hour. That’s a more pernicious problem, but not a worrying one.

No, the real issue here is one that actually becomes a virtue when you pick at it (though not at your zits, they’ll scar if you’re not careful and your fingers are dirty, it could get infected). In the first two hours, Constanzo and his team of writers (Elena Ferrante included) wisely placed us, metaphorically and sometimes literally speaking, at a child’s eye view. We saw what Lenú and Lila saw, as they saw it, and as their awareness changed and grew, so did ours. A man could be an ogre and a man, one not less terrifying than the other. But here, we see through a teenaged girl’s eyes, and being a teenage girl is the pits.

Advertisement

Like Lila and Lenú, Constanzo makes us scan the scene for threats, for hints of what other characters may be thinking, for comparisons on which to dwell and relationships to stew and worry over. Watching people shoot up into adulthood can be disorienting, unsettling, scary. And so our experience of wandering this neighborhood with these girls and recognizing the places, but not the faces, mirrors theirs. The transition into a new body and a new social landscape can really do a number on one’s emotions, even without all the hormones running rampant through you, and so of course we struggle to track and unpack all the layers and contradictions of the relationships in this hour. Washing blood out of your underwear in confusion and mortification while fiercely envying and missing and resenting and worshipping other girls is a quintessentially female experience, but it’s not a pleasant one. Understanding on a primal level, but not a practical one, why your friend is so angry with you is much the same.

That we’re able to unpleasantly share these experiences, to be haunted both by Ada’s face as it floats by, smeared with lipstick, and by the look on Lenú’s as she watches, is a testament to Constanzo’s direction as well as the writing. And of course, it’s also evidence that the show’s new leads are as up to the task as their predecessors. That My Brilliant Friend makes room for dissecting how malignant the patriarchy can be, how it can rear its head in women as well as men, is no less impressive. It’s a fiendishly clever, incredibly empathetic approach, and one that’s a significant risk. It doesn’t fully pay off here, but it comes damn close. Most promisingly, it speaks to a trust the filmmakers have in their audience. There’s not much hand-holding here (save for a few unnecessarily lascivious licks of the lips from creepy teen boys), and little in the way of jumping up and down on the theme. They seem to trust that, like Lila, we’ll figure it out; they believe that, like Lenú, we’ll see what’s really going on in time.

Does My Brilliant Friend stumble? Yes, it does. And it makes perfect sense, somehow.

Advertisement

Stray observations

  • The casting on this show is nuts. It was occasionally hard to remember which of these actors were new and which were the 2.0 versions, they looked so much alike. Obviously LenĂş and Lila are the most impressive, but Enzo and Rino were also dead ringers.
  • What do we think LenĂş thinks of Moby Dick?

Advertisement