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Checking In on Netflix’s Original Movies: May 2021 Edition

Photo: Melinda Sue Gordon/Netflix

As the outdoors warm and humankind pokes our heads out from our quarantine shelters, Netflix has brought out the big guns to compete with the return of a social world. It’s a stronger-than-usual month for the streaming service, with highlights including a resourceful close-quarters thriller and a topical character piece diving headfirst into the debate over antifa’s role in today’s resistance. The rest of the bunch raise the average, too: There’s a turn-of-the-century gay period piece from Mexico, a scuzzy airport-novel adaptation packed to the brim with A-listers, a timely morality play bolstered by stellar supporting performances, and a subdued snapshot of generational friction in India. Keep reading for the complete lowdown on a stuffed lineup.

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France’s finest genre savant Alexandre Aja, riding high after the alligator-strewn chaos of his standout Crawl, channels his talents for innovative problem-solving into a space-set thriller. A woman (Mélanie Laurent, outdoing James Franco in 127 Hours on her command of stationary pathos) without memory of herself wakes up in a small cryo-pod and can’t get out. Beyond the straightforward puzzle of how she’ll extricate herself before the oxygen is fully depleted, there lies a more delicate and lower-key existential thought experiment, in which the twists make a difference in addition to goosing the plot. The disembodied voice of Mathieu Amalric makes a welcome appearance as the ship’s onboard computer, but it’s Laurent running the show, delivering a varied and consistently gripping performance using little more than her facial muscles. With bare-bones economy, she creates a fully formed character in a film that challenges her humanity.

And Tomorrow the Entire World

Julia von Heinz’s confident, button-mashing political drama feels like it was written five minutes ago, even though she conceived the film as a period piece and refitted it to the present. That’s a testament to the constancy and futility of the partisan struggles illustrated here, in the German antifascist commune that attracts Luisa (Mala Emde) once she defects from her old-money family. Like the activists of the similarly minded BPM, her comrades fall into internecine debates over how best to combat the encroaching neo-Nazi menace in their Mannheim community. They argue the stakes of radicalism and the utility of violence with good faith and fair reason, and better still, von Heinz rejects any easy out through false equivalencies or mealy-mouthed moralizing. In order to have the conversation this film aims to start, one must first admit that there’s merit to either conclusion, no matter how riling to a complacent liberal mindset.

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The Woman in the Window

Few films in the Netflix library have such a wide gulf between the potential of their pedigree and the disappointment of their execution. Director Joe Wright (whose spotty filmography was heretofore consistent only in never being boring) wrangles a high-wattage cast including Amy Adams, Gary Oldman, Julianne Moore, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Brian Tyree Henry for an airport-paperback thriller with an unbelievable backstory — not a foolproof recipe for success by any means, but a solid guarantee of a hammy good time at minimum. What a waste that in practice, the film would turn out to be the plainest version of itself, all but bereft of the knowing humor and grabby perversion that makes this disreputable genre great. Every leaden twist gives ample warning of its arrival, neutralizing the last possible source of tension; in this mystery, Occam’s razor might as well be the murder weapon.


In this dramatization of a scenario regrettably common in today’s newspapers — a Black kid gets mixed up with some rough characters, gets arrested, and must fight for his life in court — director Anthony Mandler endeavors to see beyond the narrative. Steve (Kelvin Harrison Jr., cementing himself as a fine young actor) is shown to us as a sensitive, thoughtful 17-year-old, a far cry from the brutal, thuggish stereotype the prosecutor (Paul Ben-Victor) paints him as during the trial. For a film dedicated to resisting facile characterization, it engages in a goodly amount of that exact behavior, flattening Steve in its effort to prove him as a positive exemplar. A bevy of strong supporting turns from A$AP Rocky as Steve’s partner on the scene of the crime, Tim Blake Nelson as a traditional take on the inspirational teacher trope, and Jeffrey Wright as the steadfast father spruce up the film on the whole, but it’s still a mistrial on account of oversimplification.

Dance of the Forty-One

Did you know that in 1901, the Mexico City police carried out an unauthorized raid on a private household party, busting up the hidden haven for queer sexuality and arresting 19 cross-dressers in the process? Setting straight the record on this chapter of gay history is the first order of business in David Pablos’s drama, which then goes further by imagining the private hours of one man caught up in it. The real-life Ignacio de la Torre (Alfonso Herrera) managed to evade naming and shaming due to his politically connected family, but the film imagines the guilt he’d have wrestled with in turning his back on his people for the sake of his image. Viewers of Sense8 know that Herrera can do smoldering passion no problem, but he also acquits himself expertly in his less-flattering moments of cowardice, doubt, and weakness.


Obsolescence, while tough to convey on film due to its abstract nature, still makes for compelling drama due to the quiet, gentle way it nonetheless wounds those affected by it. There’s no pulverizing sadness to the tale of Ghalib (Suvinder Vicky), a long-haul truck driver whose aging body has begun to rebel against the extreme physical toll exacted by this work — only a sense of natural, indifferent inevitability. He watches his relevance slip right past him as he’s mandated to train the younger man (Lakshmir Saran) who will eventually replace him and leave him alone with the memories of his late wife. What could have slid into pure, gratuitous misery — a word that even Ghalib cannot help but use to describe his plight — finds direction in its social aspect, capturing the demographic shift in a modern India where the median age keeps getting lower while the job market gets slimmer.

I Am All Girls

Between Lost Girls, last fall’s Nigerian import Òlòturé, and now this latest import from South Africa, the Netflix algorithm sure has taken a shine to stomach-turning procedurals about women breaking up sex-trafficking rings. In the same way that the investigative intent of true-crime miniseries often gives way to a more ghoulish opportunity for rubbernecking, so too have these films begun to place greater focus on the suffering over what it all means to those surviving it. A white cop (Erica Wessells) teams up with a Black survivor (Hlubi Mboya) of this variety of enslavement, tracking the corruption and influence-peddling all the way to the top, but the actual women caught in this lamentable snare receive little more than lip service as their interests are fought for. Many of them wind up as props in a story that may seem nobly intended, while nonetheless servicing baser impulses to gawk.

Checking In on Netflix’s Original Movies: May 2021 Edition