Welcome to the first addition of what to stream this week, where writer Avery Staker recommends her picks in movies, TV and music available to stream right now.
"Avatar: The Last Airbender"
A day had barely passed after media giant Disney officially released its much-anticipated streaming service, Disney+, when Netflix announced a brand new, multi-year deal with Disney’s main television competitor Nickelodeon. While some saw this move as ‘desperate’ on Netflix’s part, many fans were simply ecstatic to finally have their favorite childhood entertainment at their fingertips. For me, this meant I was finally able to rewatch the show that had me spend countless mornings glued to the TV— "Avatar: The Last Airbender."
As an animation fan then, I loved "Avatar." As an animation fan now, I love "Avatar" even more. With media bodies like Vox, Insider and Forbes backing me, I truly believe "Avatar" is one of the best series in the history of television. Almost as soon as it was added to Netflix, "Avatar" shot into the 'Top Ten in the U.S. Today' list, reaching No. 1 over Netflix original hits like "Outer Banks" and "Dead to Me." Keep in mind this is a 15-year-old anime-influenced cartoon. It’s not even in the new widescreen format; it was formatted in the original 4:3 ratio.
"Avatar" has all of the fantastical elements that kids love: characters with cool powers and abilities, magical wildlife, brightly colored and aesthetically pleasing scenery and exciting adventures. Each episode runs around 20 minutes, which is the perfect length for a child's nonexistent attention span. I vividly remember understanding details of the show at 5 years old because of the clear dialogue and color association with the four nations. Watching it now as an adult, I can recognize the extensive research of indigenous and Asian cultures that made the show as beautiful as it is. The writers and animators did not miss a beat when inserting this research into every frame and plot point, and their careful consideration only strengthens the humor, romance, family drama, spirituality, action and fans’ love of the characters. "Avatar’s" ability to use multiple elements to create and foster strong emotional connections for people of all ages is what makes the show so meaningful to an entire generation of viewers. I could easily write a dissertation on everything that makes "Avatar: The Last Airbender" the timeless piece of art that it is, from the construction of the nations down to the lovable General Iroh, but I would rather leave it as a surprise for now. Just go watch the show and I will go cry while listening to Iroh sing "Little Soldier Boy." (You’ll understand when you reach Book Two. Trust me and grab tissues.)
"The Half of It"
The teen romance genre is a classic favorite among movie watchers, and Netflix is no stranger to producing their own aesthetic, based-off-a-John-Green-novel original films. Whether great (2020’s "All the Bright Places"), terrible (2019’s "Tall Girl") or somewhere in between (2020’s "PS I Still Love You"), Netflix never seems to fail in attracting the attention of its large teenage audience. The 2020 original "The Half of It" is the only exception to this pattern, and I am utterly confused.
Directed by Chinese-American filmmaker Alice Wu, "The Half of It" focuses on introverted high school senior Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) helping pure-of-heart/dumb-of-ass classmate Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer) win over the stunning and brilliant Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire). The twist: Ellie is also in love with Aster. It’s the age old love triangle trope where things go a bit too far and get a bit too messy and everyone gets really confused, but Wu made this cliche into something totally different. Ellie is a Chinese American immigrant with a father who speaks no English, but her identity and the struggles that come with it are not at the forefront of the plot. The same goes with Aster, who comes from a poor Spanish-speaking Mexican American family, but we hardly see the struggles against racism. It’s so refreshing and humanizing that I cried while watching the Chu and Flores family scenes. Wu did a fantastic job making these identities important pieces of the characters but not basing the entire film off of the tragedy of oppression. The events are even set in a small town in Louisiana, which I can guarantee was a strategic decision made by Wu.
As someone with an LGBT+ identity, it was also incredible to watch a gay movie that is not centered around an identity struggle. "The Half of It" is not like the typical LGBT+ movies that scream “this is a GAY movie about a GAY kid who struggles with being GAY” ("Love, Simon" is excluded). The characters are allowed to just be. There’s no dramatic coming out scene or violent homophobic bullies. Wu purposefully made the ‘antagonists’ a group of shallow, conceited teens at Ellie’s high school that were just that — shallow and conceited. The leader of this group and Aster’s boyfriend, Trig Carson (Wolfgang Novogratz), has one of my favorite characterizations ever. He’s the typical small town wonderboy: pretty, popular and from one of the wealthiest families in the area. Instead of making Trig into a monstrous racist homophobe, like so many other “small town wonderboy” archetypes, Wu simply made him dumb. Sure, Trig is conceited and isn’t the best boyfriend because of it, but he’s harmless and brings some great laughs to the film.
Of course, there are hints at an identity struggle within Ellie, but that’s because all LGBT+ kids have some identity struggles. The constant undertone of the film is not closeted gay panic in a small homophobic Southern town; it’s about being a teen in love and the antics that happen as a result, but with added culture. It’s the kind of representation I, and many others, have so desperately needed. So please, give "The Half of It" the attention it deserves!
The Driver Era
Listen up, alternative fans, this one’s for you.
Remember the sweet, goofy and bleach blond musician from the Disney Channel series "Austin & Ally?" Or the adorable 1960s musical-obsessed beach boy from the Disney Channel Original Movie "Teen Beach Movie?" How about the bubbly lead singer of sibling pop band R5? What if I told you he is now half of a musical duo that makes alternative music fit for combat boots and decorative chains?
Since his Disney Channel days, Ross Lynch has grown immensely as an artist. He and his brother Rocky formed The Driver Era in 2018 and it seems they have truly found their sound together. Their sultry, powerful, distinct voices and true understanding of music and songwriting make them an alternative band like no other. As part of the new wave of innovative, genre-rejecting artists, the brothers don’t like to put their music in one specific box. They do, however, have their own vibe, which can only be described in one word: angst. So much angst.
What I love about Ross and Rocky’s angsty sound is that it is not one type of angst. They have songs for those who feel trapped in a box constructed by society ("Nobody Knows"), songs for someone who wants to feel some level of catharsis of postbreakup anger ("Low," "OMG Plz Don’t Come Around"), songs that describe an intense romantic passion ("Afterglow," "Natural") and so much more.
Obviously, I can’t force anyone to listen to their music, but I can highly, highly, highly suggest to go on whatever music streaming platform is available and search for The Driver Era’s first and only album, "X." Thank me later.