June (Sorcha Groundsell) and Harry (Percelle Ascott) are teens caught between identities. They’re both students helping maintain households alongside a single parent, with at least one individual living there requiring special care. Responsibility overwhelms any attempt at self-care, which becomes a lower and lower priority until the teens’ sudden act of rebellion: escape. That’s the bare (yet well done) emotional surface of The Innocents. When June discovers she’s a shapeshifter, Netflix’s romantic young adult series only blossoms, dipping deeper into its body-based sci-fi premise and setting itself apart from the glossy, tech-stratified, Society Allegories of Divergent and The Hunger Games’ war zones. The Innocents is personal.
Some YA stories use magic scars, strange personality types, or dystopian military selection to lend puberty an added layer of mystic resonance; The Innocents charges into the uneasy time of zits and self-loathing with the headstrong confidence of a Viking. That’s partially because of a delicious (and, at times, downright sadistic) tendency to withhold information, and partially because it knows that it knows teens. June’s just turned 16 and, presumably, so has much of The Innocents’ audience, but as with specualtive YA predecessor The End of the F—ing World, it’s smart enough that you can appreciate its accuracy from both inside and outside the pubescent bubble. It also helps that The Innocents navigates the choppy metaphor of teen body-swapping with compassion and beauty.
Some of this is established early on by Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson—the hulking, bearded might-as-well-be-a-bear June first shifts into—as he and Groundsell do some wonderfully coordinated co-acting, the identity confusion feeling suitably scary, absurd, and yet not without plausibility. Harry and June aren’t treating this as magic. They’re focused on the real, tangible issues at hand. Harry’s cute girlfriend has a beard now and June, well, June’s got the wrong body. But rather than force the metaphor of gender dysphoria—which, thank God it doesn’t, as that’s out of the series’ depth—The Innocents focuses on the Cronenbergian aspects of its body horror—and it does it well.
The logistical weirdness that comes with accidentally changing forms is addressed in all its detailed fun. June’s “real” form can only be seen in her reflection when she’s shifted, which make mirrors objects simultaneously of dissociation—and, especially for a teen—reinforcement. No matter the strange, unfamiliar, maturing face in the mirror (and no matter how long you’ve searched it for imperfections in the bathroom), it’s yours. Fixating on tangible props and changes to the body make these events feel less like special effects and more like relationship hurdles. That, and the pair’s energetic, wide-eyed chemistry, gives the romance the recognizable, stumbling hurry of youth. Groundsell often wears an impish grin, disguising deeper feelings, while Ascott carries a soft, sweet energy throughout even his most protective scenes.
They’re pursued by an antagonistic Professor X-like adversary named Halvorson (Guy Pearce, absolutely refusing to hide his scruffy dadliness behind a collared shirt), who has knowledge of her gift and promises about her absent mother. There are a lot of moving parts here, some of which don’t become immediately threatening or fully fleshed-out until near the end of the eight-episode season—and even then, there’s plenty of room to grow. The series rewards patience and augurs lots of naggingly unanswered questions for those without it.
The Innocents, from writer/creators Hania Elkington and Simon Duric, couches all of its weirdness, all of its twistiness, in a very mundane question: Who am I? It focuses on the intangible essence of an individual, which, despite all the series’ exotic metaphors for change, remains as a through line over the course of growing up. It’s also about how that through line can be threatened by the social riptides pulling it in every direction, attempting to drag it out to various clique-y atolls or tangle it so badly that it takes years of therapy to unravel. Identity, and what it’s worth, are at the heart of The Innocents. How does selfishness play into a young relationship? The central pair abandons members of their families that need them in order to pursue their own happiness. What happens when that happiness is threatened by their own fickle and unreliable human bodies? That’s a much easier ask than any franchise-aspiring YA, which lets the storytelling actually work at a character level.
With only minor narration and flashback (and no reliance on either), the story is easy to follow and so, so, so easy on the eyes. Mostly shot by David Procter and directed by Farren Blackburn, the series frames its more simple, primal emotional beats (hating your dad, fearing a stranger, fleeing an assailant) with big, beautiful shots and color that seems all but extinct in a genre that often looks as washed-out as its drama feels. That makes for sweeping, cinematic accompaniment to stressors on either end of the relatability scale (from the aforementioned chase to crippling agoraphobia), which heightens the drama to a pitch feverish enough to let its fantastic elements slip in without much fuss.
Balancing the solid romance and the tantalizing genre elements, with nicely restrained effects (a lot of cutting away, then cutting back to a different person) and reliance on acting, makes The Innocents one of the strongest entries in the semi-magical YA metaphor-drama genre. That feels silly to say, but it feels even sillier to say that The Innocents is simply great TV and deserves a second season to delve even deeper into its fun and intimate exploration of identity crises. While the episodes contain a bit of fluff (which was perhaps included without the assumption that you’d binge the whole thing at once and see the same light character beats played over and over, like I did), there’s so much to enjoy that it’s easy to understand the fandom that the show will create. And now, though I have to look in the mirror to make sure I’m the same person, I’m a part of it.
The Innocents premieres Friday, August 24 on Netflix.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.