Grand Army, Netflix’s new drama about an array of students at Brooklyn’s largest public high school, feels like adolescence itself. High-energy, full of itself and busy pulling in everything it can find from the outside world to try on, keep or discard, in a mad flurry of excitement. It’s a wild, confused and compelling ride all at once.
It opens in the loos of the girls’ grimy changing rooms with main protagonist Joey Del Marco (Odessa A’zion) retrieving a lost condom from her panicking – and soon to be very grateful – friend Grace (Keara Graves). She holds it aloft like a prize when she succeeds and the girls whoop and cheer. I suspect we’ll be waiting a long time before we find any scene that better captures the mad intimacy and untrammelled loyalty of teenage female friendship.
Then a bomb goes off outside. The school’s lockdown procedures swing into action and as they crouch on central stairs, away from windows, the boys’ swim team carries out its own bonding ritual – compiling a list of “Bomb Pussy” online (Joey tops the list) and sending it round the school. Only studious Sid (Amir Bageria) resists involvement. Meanwhile, school orchestra members Owen (Jaden Jordan) and Jayson (Maliq Johnson) start fooling around with classmate Dom’s (Odley Jean) purse and accidentally drop it down the stairwell. Plus there’s the overarching question in every student’s mind – will this mean the big party planned for tonight at Connor’s place will be cancelled? The sweet solipsism, indefatigability and recklessness of the young and their unspoken yet irreducible belief in their own immortality emanates almost visibly from the screen.
From that cramped staircase, multiple story arcs and plotlines unfold. Possibly slightly too multiple, but then I am old, cankered, my brain elastic’s gone and I find myself weeping for the days of The Breakfast Club, when unlikely students were thrown together by detentions instead of terrorist incidents. Leila (Amalia Yoo), a student born in China and adopted as a baby by a Jewish couple who is now struggling to be accepted into any clique at school, is flattered to be on the list and soon embroiled in a toxic sexual relationship as a result. Sid, who is probably gay and badly placed to come out either at home or at school, is further distressed by the fact that because of his brown skin, people will assume he has some kind of kinship with the Muslim bomber.
Joey mounts a school-wide braless protest against a teacher’s complaints about her (lack of) clothes, and her story later evolves into that of creator Katie Cappiello’s play Slut, about the fallout from a student-on-student assault, from which Grand Army originated. Jayson and Owen will find that their few minutes of horseplay will cost them, literally and metaphorically, dearly as they become caught up in the school’s “zero tolerance” policy – a common and controversial practice in US education that seems to affect students of colour beyond all others. And the loss of Dom’s hard-earned $200, saved in the teeth of her unreliable mother’s disastrous extravagances, sparks a long trail of its own.
It is an ambitious, wholly admirable attempt to dramatise and anatomise just about all known societal ills. Systemic racism, class and power relations, identity crises, sexual inequality, individual rights versus collective, and issues of consent in the #MeToo era – where young people are beginning to understand the theory but have not yet mastered the practice. All of human life is here, tightly focused through a teenage lens. It holds together, just about, but, as with the stroppy adolescent it so resembles, you do want to tell it to calm down so you can listen properly. Maybe in a second season it will have grown up a bit.