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Female power in THE OA

Eileen McCormick / Khmer Times Share:
Brit Marling as Prairie Johnson in The OA. Netflix

Since we’ve just celebrated International Women’s Day, I thought of reviewing a show with a strong female portrayal and a screenplay that crosses the border of typical girl power dramas. I found The OA.

The series, released on Netflix in December 2016, was a collaborative work of Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, who also worked together on other movies – with the eco-thriller The East as my personal favourite. In The OA, Marling also takes the lead role while Batmanglij directs the eight-episode mystery/sci-fi series.

The OA has a unique way of bringing in feminine power by recognising “voicelessness” as creative diversion from modern perceptions of needing to speak up in order to heal. Not all women (or men) want to share their stories, especially the painful ones. But society has pressured most of us to believe that without vocalising our issues, we will remain in trauma. The OA proves this way of thinking wrong.

The series instead uses the female body to show the power of the traditional feminine art of magic. For millennia, it was women who gathered around fires and shared intimately the culture from one generation to the next. These gatherings often included women enjoying their bodies through dance, which threatened the puritan way of life and led us to identifying it as ‘witch hunt’.

The OA is a delicate puzzle, ripe with intrigue and leaves you guessing what the moral take on it is. The show uses a unique formula that has not yet been utilized on other Netflix series – each episode has different running times and does not go smoothly from one subplot to the next. I personally deem how the story unfolds as similar to how chapters in books go. That being said, this show might not be for the masses. Not to mention the limited foreshowing that lets you know where the series is going. The OA takes a bit of patience, but definitely worth the wait, at least for me.

The OA begins with grainy, shaky video footage shot on a phone by a young child in the backseat of a car going over a bridge. Suddenly, a blonde woman dressed in grungy out-of-date clothing appears suddenly and leaps off the bridge into the icy water. It’s a jarring scene to start a series, but it will leave viewers with questions: Who is that girl? How did she get there? Did she survive? Is this some sort of hoax online video?

The OA is a story of Prairie Johnson, a blind girl who returns to her hometown after being missing for seven years. Prairie is an adopted child of Abel (Scott Wilson) and Nancy (Alice Krige). Early into adulthood, Prairie is kidnapped by Dr. Hunter Hap (Jason Isaacs) and is kept in a glass cage mimicking standard scientific protocol for lab rats along with four people. All five of them are taken as captives because of their near-death experiences (NDE) – which Dr. Hap is trying to experiment on. In flashbacks, we see the grueling experiments of the doctor through his human captives in an attempt to recreate the conditions of NDEs and gather further proofs of the afterlife.

Once Prairie, who now goes by the name OA, is released from the hospital, she is surrounded by questions about her seven-year disappearance. No one knows what really happened to her when she left her town and her adoptive family. Her unwillingness to share her story and how she regained her sight has left many, including her parents, to not trust her.

She finds her own ‘sanity’ life raft through a group of misfits that she feels safe to gradually recount the events of her absence. And along with her five-member group, viewers will also be left in doubt about the veracity of Prairie’s stories.

The group dynamics of her haphazardly formed friends is to understand personal issues they are learning to cope with – from teenage drinking problems, inadequacy, rejection and mistrust of parents.

A scene from The OA, before Prairie Johnson is kidnapped by Dr. Hunter Hap. Photo: Netflix

The OA series weaves a picaresque Russian oligarchy, kidnapping and captivity, with new-age yet 1980 nostalgic feel to it. Its resonance comes from its more seemingly mundane aspect of the lives of the lead character’s five listeners. Prairie’s magnetic pull through her words help them escape their own dramas, allowing them just enough space for self-transformation.

Steve (Patrick Gibson) is violent, obnoxious and under threat of being sent to boot camp; his teacher Betty (Phyllis Smith) is a disillusioned overeater carrying residual guilt over the death of her brother; Alfonso (Brandon Perea) is a high-achieving scholarship student who acts as caregiver and breadwinner to his brothers and deals with an alcoholic mother; Jesse (Brendan Meyer) is an orphaned kid who lives with his older sister; and Buck (Ian Alexander) is a transgender boy who eats lunch alone and whose father refuses to call him by anything but his given female name.

It turns out that Prairie’s name is not actually Prairie, but Nina. Nina was not only born with sight but was born in Russia to a wealthy father, who has since passed away. Prone to premonitions in the form of dreams, she claims to have lost her sight after an NDE as a young girl. She is sent to the United States and later adopted by the well-meaning Johnson family, who named her Prairie.

Even though her new parents intend to raise her to be a nice, blonde American girl from Michigan, Nina’s dreams continue, prompting her to believe that her father is still alive and is coming back for her. On her 21st birthday, Nina runs away to meet his father. This is how she encounters Dr. Hap and gets herself taken as captive for the experiment.

Nina/Prairie and the other four captives inside the glass cage start seeing the potential of going through several unearthly dimensions through their NDEs. Their discoveries become a major theme throughout the show as they learn certain movements that have the power to heal them. Each of the movement is kept safe from the knowledge of Dr. Hap, who frequently subjects them to drowning in order to record soundscapes of their NDEs.

Prairie tells her captivated audience of misfits that they also have the power to resurrect the dead, to shift dimensions and to transcend time. She divulges that there are exactly five movements with specific repetition of postures. The misfits need to learn each of the movement perfectly for it to take effect. Prairie, who has a special bond with a fellow captive named Homer, is determined to use his newfound friends to rescue the others from Dr. Hap’s hands.

One of the most striking take from the show is how dance movements make the “invisible self” visible. The movements cast an internal and external spell that reveals truths. And Prairie’s story, whether it’s real or plainly made up as a medium to release her own pain, tells us that there is magic in body movements that go beyond the words our mouth speak.

So for this weekend, chill out to the afterlife with The OA.

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