Content warning: sexual assault
The new Netflix series Tiny Pretty Things is for and about teenagers, in yet another addition to the post-Gossip Girl youth canon. This time around, the added twist is that the teens are ballerinas. The series’ focus is on a group of students attending the prestigious Archer School of Ballet in Chicago. When the academy’s star student Cassie Shore (Anna Maiche) is unceremoniously shoved off the school’s roof by a mysterious assailant, Archer admits a newcomer in her place, Neveah Stroyer (Kylie Jefferson), who wants to shake up the existing order of the ballet world.
Some of the other personalities at Archer include the backstabbing perfectionist Bette (Casimere Jollette); June (Daniela Norman), whose mother threatens to pull her out of ballet school; and Nabil (Michael Hsu Rosen), Cassie’s distressed boyfriend. Meanwhile, the culprit who pushed Cassie continues to be relentlessly pursued by Chicago PD officer Isabel Cruz (Jess Salgueiro).
Let’s start with the good. The series’ biggest strength is its decision to cast real dancers, forgoing the use of camera trickery and doubles for the ballet scenes. This gives the series a lot of freedom to shoot with longer takes where the actors’ faces and bodies can fully express how their characters are feeling, mirroring the plot through physical movement. Practicality aside, it’s also simply enjoyable to watch talented performers excel at their craft on-screen.
However, this strength is almost entirely overshadowed by the host of problems plaguing the rest of the series. At Archer, drama reigns supreme. Each of the beautiful sixteen and seventeen-year-olds (played by, of course, beautiful actors in their mid-twenties) face various familial, friendship, and relationship-based conflicts that have varying degrees of relevance to the series’ throughlines.
Unfortunately, many of the characters are extremely underwritten. This makes most of the conflicts and resolutions stem from what often appear to be coincidences or random twists of fate, instead of actions based on developed character motivations. The series also relies heavily on some terribly cheesy dialogue and voice-overs that attempt to moralise by making metaphorical connections about life to ballet. “You know the saying “beauty is agony”? It’s the ballet equivalent of “no pain, no gain.”” Cassie recites in one voiceover. “You hide the price being paid. You’re a perfect sacrificial beast, and the least they can do is worship you.” Time is also wasted on scenes in every episode depicting the students’ nightmares, trying to give moments a Black Swan-esque sheen and mystique. However, they do little to serve the plot, and their overuse dampens their effectiveness.
Because so much time is wasted on scenes that add little to the narrative, the series misses valuable opportunities to address many potentially more nuanced themes. One of the most interesting relationships of the series between a self-identified straight ballet dancer Oren (Baron Cowperthwaite) who is hooking up with his gay friend Shane (Brennan Clost) could have led to some discussions surrounding identity and sexuality. Unfortunately, the matter is dropped entirely after a few episodes and is hardly remarked upon again for the latter half of the season. There is also a clumsily dealt with subplot about Islamophobia, which ignores the complications of hate-based ideologies in service of a quick, simplistic resolution.
What is maybe Tiny Pretty Things‘ largest failure is in its recurring motifs of dangerous and unethical relationships between the school’s students and its adults, crossing the lines between professional and personal conduct. Though the series does interrogate some of the more egregious acts of assault that occur, others are half-heartedly accepted because students initiated the indiscretions. In one such scene, a student is depicted attempting to initiate a threesome with a staff member, while in another, a student engages in a sexual relationship with the head of the school. Many of the scenes are difficult to watch. These incidents are framed in a relatively flattering light compared to what is a blatant breach of consent that occurs, even going to the extent of having student-staff liaisons romanticised by other characters.
Though there are attempts to make broad points about abuses of power, the cherry-picking of what is and isn’t appropriate is particularly harmful to a potential audience of teenagers. While watching, I was reminded of another recent release; the FX miniseries A Teacher. In that series, a relationship between a high school student and his English teacher shone a light on what it truly was–abuse to a child that had long-lasting implications into adulthood. I wished that Tiny Pretty Things would have turned a similarly critical eye toward consent and appropriate behaviour. Instead it’s a programme that only disappoints and disturbs its audience in equal measure.
Tiny Pretty Things is now streaming on Netflix.
by Keno Katsuda
Keno is a writer and freelancer in the film industry currently based in Tokyo, but she considers London home. Her favourite movie is The Big Short. She believes Alita: Battle Angel deserves a sequel and that the correct ranking for the Mission: Impossible franchise from best to worst is: 4,6,5,3,1,2. You can argue with her on Twitter or Letterboxd.