Friday, September 08, 2023

The Changeling, on Apple TV+

North Brother Island near the Bronx was once a quarantine site for Riverside Hospital, but it is now an uninhabited bird sanctuary managed by the City. Somewhere nearby, there is a mysterious island that maybe holds the answers to some sinister fantastical questions. To get there, you must take a detour through the Twilight Zone, or the Looking Glass, if you prefer. A series of unimaginable tragedies will motivate Apollo Kagwa to seek those answers in creator Kelly Marcel’s eight-episode The Changeling, adapted from Victor LaValle’s novel, which premieres today on Apple TV+.

There are a lot of parallels between Kagwa’s family history and that of his future wife, Emma Valentine. Kagwa’s long, slightly stalkerish courtship of Valentine also mirrors that of his father’s pursuit of his mother, way back in the garbage-strike-stricken New York City of the 1970s. We will go back to that time frequently, because
The Changeling loves its flashbacks.

Just when Kagwa thought he was making progress with Valentine, she leaves for a year-long research trip to Brazil, where she has a disturbing encounter with fortune-telling witch. (The Portuguese is accurately translated in the scenes, by the way.) Kagwa is delighted Valentine wants to pick-up where they left off when she returns. However, she still carries “something” from the witch.

Eventually, they have a baby, which should be great. Sadly, Valentine’s post-partum depression metastasizes into paranoid psychosis. She becomes convinced their baby is not really their baby. She is also bedeviled by harassing texts that apparently magically disappear whenever she tries to show them to Kagwa. Eventually, she does something unspeakably rash that will deeply scar Kagwa. Yet, after some time passes, he seeks greater understanding into her state of mind by seeking out the mysterious Cal (short for Callisto).

The Changeling
is jam packed with pretentious literary allusions. It also has an annoying habit creating more obscure mysteries with every ostensive revelation. Throughout it all, it is impossible to miss its fairy tale inspirations from LaValle’s constant once-upon-a-time narration. Frankly, viewers will get a general sense The Changeling is an unadaptable novel Marcel tried to adapt anyone, on a dare. Perhaps the production ran out of money too, because the final episode clocks in at a mere half hour and suddenly transforms from a weird micro-scale fable into a macro-scale earth-shaking fantastical spectacle, with little transitional warning.

LaKeith Stanfield is almost too decent and soulful as Kagwa—and definitely too reserved.
 (Seriously, can he ever remove that knit cap?) Periodically, the narrative requires him to act in rather impulsive and presumptuous ways, which always seem jarringly out of character. Jane Kaczmarek is supposed to be appealingly salty and tough as Cal, but all her dialogue sounds like self-empowerment platitudes, ready made for the bulletin board in your local mindfulness workshop. Frankly, the most effective work comes from Jared Abrahamson as Kagwa’s absconded (or did he really?) father and Samuel Herring (from the band Future Islands) as William Wheeler, a decidedly odd fellow, who keeps crossing paths with Kagwa, in rather fateful ways.

Marcel’s adaptation just cannot stop playing games. It is also obsessed with details that distract from the bigger picture. In some ways, the penultimate episode perfectly represents the series. Essentially, it is a stand-alone memory play and a trip into the subconscious of Kagwa’s mother, reminding us of some long-forgotten exposition, while ultimately leaving us even more confused regarding their family history. Sometimes, ambiguity can be richly intriguing, but this is no
Twin Peaks, not even close, so save yourself the frustration. Not recommended, The Changeling starts streaming today (9//8) on Apple TV+.