(BETTY season 2 premieres on HBO Nordic June 12th)
Back in the saddle
I loved the first season of BETTY, which premiered last year. To date, it remains one of the best depictions of growing up in modern society this side of Richard Linklater films. Directed by Crystal Moselle, who I spoke with before things got really bad in New York, it introduced a vibrant and compelling cast of characters, all of who skateboarded their way into my heart almost immediately.
One year later, New York barely resembles the world it used to be, and our heroes remain stuck, like most of the country, in a half-life caused by the pandemic. With no skateparks open, and the aftermath of their choices last summer lingering, the group spends most of the season split in separate storylines.
Natural and real
Shot on the streets in the same cinéma vérité style that distinguished its stellar previous season, BETTY picks up in the middle of the worst pandemic New York has seen in centuries. Indigo (Ajani Russell) works a dead-end job to pay back her mom, Camille (Rachelle Vinberg) continues to work as an influencer, Honey Bear (Moonbear) explores her sexuality further. At the same time, Kirt (Nina Moran) becomes, well, a guru of sorts.
While still revolving around skateboarding in one way or another, these stories take the next step further into adulthood. Sometimes painfully, sometimes not, but always honestly. In the end, everyone has to ask themselves what their place is, not just the group is, but in their own lives.
The entire cast has grown immensely within a year, and their performances are even more natural than before. It helps that the plot, though loose and relaxed, affords them more scripted scenarios compared to last year. Some of these, like Indigo’s career choices, are increasingly uncomfortable to watch. But as with season one, it’s material that never feels fake or written about a world the filmmakers don’t understand.
Heart of the city
The slice-of-life pacing is more pronounced this time around, which might result from everything else coming to a standstill. But, for our heroes, who spent much of last year on the move, stopping is as close to death as they get, and the discomfort is palpable.
Like last time, New York remains a vital character in the series. Unlike last year, Moselle trades the warm summer days and endless sunsets into harsh tones of silver and blue. Winter is coming and the pandemic has left the world untethered. In the background, we catch glimpses of BLM and George Floyd. Continued evidence of a struggle that never seems to end.
While our heroes wade deep into these topics, BETTY never feels pandering or reactionary. Everyone lives their lives at their own pace, and we share in their points of view one snippet at a time. Moselle rarely lingers too long, which sometimes makes situations feel truncated until you remember that our heroes are still very young – some things occupy their minds for mere fleeting moments.
So when we jump from the awkward growing pains of Honey Bear figuring out what she wants out of relationships to Kirt’s braggadocio, Moselle mines the situation for all its worth. Moran is as funny as ever, often intentionally, and her easygoing charisma serves as a brilliant Greek Chorus for a still world.
BETTY season 2 is just as brilliant as the first, while still distinguishing itself as a separate creature. Some things don’t work as well as expected: Necessity forces it to abandon the freewheeling and fun for now, and a new antagonist feels oddly reductive. But overall, there’s very little to complain about. Director Moselle understands the visual language of her hometown with the kind of poetic quality comparable to early Scorsese, and her talented cast make every line their own.
If you missed BETTY last year, now is the pefect time to dive in. The seasons are reasonably short at just six half hour episodes, which means a binge won’t take up an entire month. But more importantly, it’s a series that lingers for long after. Like New York, BETTY leaves an ephemeral feeling, like you’ve witnessed something special, that sticks in your soul.
You don’t know what it is, but it feels like it’s always been there, and you’re just happy you found it again.