‘Grand Army’: Breakout Performances In A Depressing High School Tale

‘Grand Army’: Breakout Performances In A Depressing High School Tale

Dominique (Odley Jean) is one of several high school students in Netflix’s sprawling, ambitious Grand Army.

Jaspar Savage/Netflix

The opening credits sequence of Netflix’s latest teen melodrama Grand Army is brief, but a perfect distillation of the show’s modus operandi. During a montage depicting various young characters’ faces, a moody, pulsating thump accompanies a siren’s wail. From episode to episode, a different set of phrases flashes across the screen; in the second episode, those phrases are “F—k the f—ing patriarchy,” “I’m scared” and “zero tolerance.” Grand Army, it says in just a few seconds, is about existential fear in the face of institutional oppression.

It is about this moment, people!

Those three sentiments are just a small sampling of all the themes and hot-button topics this sprawling series, about an eclectic bunch of students at a fictional public high school in Brooklyn, attempts to cover over nine hour-long episodes: The school-to-prison pipeline. Transracial adoption. Sexual assault. Homophobia. Xenophobia. Slut-shaming. Poverty and unemployment. Mental health. Black Lives Matter. Microaggressions. If you can hashtag it, it’s probably playing out in some form among the kids of Grand Army High.

Grand Army is loosely based on playwright and teacher Katie Cappiello’s 2013 play SLUT, which borrowed from her students’ personal experiences to create the story of Joey, a 16-year-old girl who is sexually assaulted by her male friends. In the Netflix version, Cappiello and her writers room expand beyond Joey (played here by Odessa A’zion) to include a host of other characters whose narratives occasionally intersect with hers: Dominique (Odley Jean), an ambitious student-athlete whose family leans on her for financial support and caretaking duties; Siddhartha (Amir Bageria), a senior on the swim team struggling with his college essay and questioning his sexuality; Leila (Amalia Yoo), an overeager freshman who craves attention from the older boys while harboring intense teenage angst; and Jayson (Maliq Johnson), a talented saxophone player who, along with his best friend, lands in serious trouble at school for a dumb prank.

The show wastes no time dropping the viewer into a morose pit of each characters’ anxieties, as a bombing nearby sends the school into lockdown in the first episode. As soon as it’s revealed that the bomber was Muslim, for instance, Siddhartha, a first-generation Indian American, becomes understandably concerned about being racially profiled. Elsewhere, Joey’s teacher harshly reprimands her for finding “any excuse to put your body on display” and insists she cover up her legs. (Joey is wearing gym shorts, because she was in gym class when the attack happened.)

Meanwhile, members of the boys’ swim team circulate a misogynist list rating some of their female classmates, and Leila, who was adopted from China by white Jewish parents, is proud to learn she’s on it, under the name “JAP.” (It’s unclear if this is meant to stand for Jewish American Princess, the derogatory term for people of Japanese descent, or both.)

And so on. Not unlike HBO’s Euphoria, Grand Army’s vision of what it means to be a kid in the (pre-COVID) present day is painfully bleak. Everyone is weighted down by a capital-A albatross that is inextricably tied to their most discriminated-against identity, and more often than not, that becomes their defining characteristic in the most obvious and unimaginative of ways.

That’s part of the conundrum of Grand Army. While its ambition in tackling varying perspectives is admirable, it frequently resembles the experience of being deeply entrenched in the exhausting realm of Twitter, where salient points can be made and “liked” — and even a smartly detailed Twitter thread doesn’t qualify as a substitution for a more expansive essay. With a couple of notable exceptions, the majority of the characters feel as though they were conceived as avatars through which to address an Important Social Issue first, and as fleshed-out human beings second.

Joey is one such exception. Despite having a storyline that feels somewhat predictable amidst the many recent films and TV shows dealing with sexual assault, A’zion infuses the outspoken, boisterous Joey with cutting specificity, from her punkish attitude (she’s a Bikini Kill fan) to the expressive, lithe way she carries herself.

Dominique’s narrative is the unquestionable highlight, turning what at first seems to be hovering dangerously close in proximity to poverty porn into a surprisingly nuanced take on black girlhood and its joys as well as its trappings. Her socioeconomic struggles at home are in some ways extreme in comparison to her classmates, yet she nonetheless has a strong network of emotional support all around her, both at school and home. Jean’s performance finds different shades and strokes in all of Dominique’s highs and lows, and one scene in particular, late in the series, in which she describes her professional and personal dreams, is sobering and affecting.

It’s worth noting that last month, writer Ming Peiffer alleged on Twitter that she and two other writers on the show quit because of racist mistreatment by Cappiello and concerns about the script’s depictions of its non-white characters. (Peiffer is credited as a co-writer on episode eight.) While more details have yet to emerge around these claims, it’s difficult to recommend Grand Army for this reason, even as all of the performances from this compelling cast of newcomers rise above the mixed-bag of material. How to reconcile what might have happened behind the scenes when it’s so directly in opposition to the project’s proudly proclaimed message of progressive ideas and empowerment?

I come down on it this way: Your mileage may vary. If gritty YA shows that proudly cling to a “dysfunction junction” premise are generally your jam, it’s probably worth giving it a try. There will also likely be viewers who find value and catharsis in some of the stories, and that’s not to be discounted. For everyone else, Grand Army may prove too stilted, too bluntly rendered — the manifestation of fatiguing social media discourse rendered in dramatic form.