WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD.
On July 15, streaming service Netflix released the eight-episode first season of “Stranger Things,” a serialized thriller set in a small Indiana town in late 1983. It’s best described as a love letter to ’80s movies, with heavy doses of Steven Spielberg (“E.T.,” “The Goonies,” “Poltergeist”) and John Hughes (“Breakfast Club,” “Sixteen Candles”), along with just about any Stephen King novel you care to name.
A 12-year-old boy, Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), disappears, and his Dungeons-and-Dragons-playing pals — all about the same age — get caught up in the search for him. Along the way, they meet a psychokinetic girl, Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), who has escaped from secret experiments and claims to know where Will is.
One of the boys, Mike (Finn Wolfhard), hides Eleven in his basement rec room. Meanwhile, Mike’s older sister, Nancy (Natalia Dyer), a high-school student, embarks on a romance with classmate Steve (Joe Keery), with her pal Barb (Shannon Purser) reluctantly tagging along.
Eventually, all of them get caught up in the dangerous and deadly supernatural happenings surrounding Mike’s disappearance — which also involve Will’s quiet older brother, Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), and distraught single mother, Joyce (Winona Ryder).
The series is rated PG-13, meaning it’s suitable for teens 14 and up. After having seen the whole thing, I agree — with caveats.
The kids playing the kids (who are about the same age as their characters) had a big advantage over the viewers, in which they definitely knew and saw that it was all movie magic and make-believe. The series works hard to be scary, and it succeeds, so a lot of younger kids might wind up with nightmares. Intensifying this is that the kids are in real peril. Now, they handle it with pluck, guts and resourcefulness, and that’s good, but know your own kids’ tolerance for shock and suspense.
There is some bad language, including the Lord’s name taken in vain, but it’s not out of line with the way a lot of kids talk. What may startle some youngsters — especially those with hyper-involved helicopter parents — is the level of physical freedom the kids of a few decades ago had, as they zoom around the town on their bikes, while their parents seem blissfully ignorant of what they’re doing.
One outgrowth of this freedom is that Nancy goes to a party at Steve’s house — while his parents are away, with no adult present –drinks beer and has sex with Steve. It isn’t shown, but Nancy confirms it to her mother later, although, as we go very quickly into chills and thrills, there is no parent-child discussion about it.
In fact, at the end, Steve is seen with Nancy at her parents’ home at Christmas, seemingly still her boyfriend and not dead at her father’s hand.
Honestly, the script could have gotten away with a heavy makeout session and never went for the actual sex — especially since it wasn’t shown — but perhaps the Duffer Brothers, who are the creators and producers, assume, as many do in the modern age, that teenage sex is just a given.
I will say that I did like that Steve was portrayed not just as a teen Lothario but as an actual person with some redeeming qualities, but real parents may want to have a much more involved discussion about Nancy’s choice — and it’s a choice, as it’s definitely no case of date rape — than her fictional parents did.
On the flip side, the preteen romance that evolves between Mike and Eleven is handled with delicacy and charm.
There are also issues of parental drinking, infidelity and drug use, offset by a positive portrayal of caring teachers and adult/parental courage (especially in the case of the troubled but determined Joyce). The Dungeons and Dragons fantasy gameplay shown in the series doesn’t appear to have any occult overtones. If you’re OK with your kids reading and watching “The Lord of the Rings,” the stories that Mike and his buddies make up shouldn’t cause any issues.
As a side note, one of the buddies, Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), is missing teeth as a result of a congenital condition called cleidocranial dysostosis. The actor also has the same condition, showing kids that even if you’re not perfect, you can still have friends — and star in a TV show.
One big downside — even though Christmas is mentioned in the script, the only real mention of faith is during a funeral. It would have been nice if one of the characters was seen praying or talking to a priest or pastor, but no dice.
Bonus points if you can name — down in the comments, the literary source of the series’ title.
Image: Courtesy Netflix