No adult plays teenagers better than Chris Lilley. In several HBO series, he cornered the market and set the ground rules.
Now, Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle rip a page from his playbook and give us “PEN15,” a look at seventh-graders in 2000. Like Lilley (particularly as Ja’mie), they blend nicely, interacting with real teens without much of a blip.
Best friends, the two share everything, from the things they’ll say to the clothes they’ll wear. They butt up against the popular girls and aren’t afraid to look stupid when they’re pretending to be cool.
Created by and starring the two, “PEN15” is performance art, for the most part, letting some scenes drag on longer than they should, others ending more quickly than they need to. The goal is to capture all those emotions that crash in the minds of 13-year-old girls. If the two didn’t have extensive diaries from the era, they certainly have great memories. “PEN15” is an exacting look at that 0-to-60 world of crises and consciences.
The title, while provocative, doesn’t capture the “Eighth Grade” feel that pervades the Hulu series. Yes, there’s talk of sex. Yes, there’s profanity. But this snapshot is a lot more detailed than you’d think.
Maya deals with the added pressure of racism. Asian-American, she gets more trash-talking than Anna, who has to deal with her own degree of loyalty.
Because it’s set in another era, “PEN15” can revel in conversation. Instant messaging becomes a “thing” but these stories suggest it takes real guts to do one-on-one confrontation. The girls toy with boys, hang with the tough girls, sample the world of band nerds and discover sex. While one episode goes a bit too far for the audience that will obviously love this, the series stays in its lane and focuses on friendship. That’s where the two actors really shine.
Hoping to help others, they sign up for a project that involves fashion and senior citizens. It introduces thongs, too, and shows just how petty the “cool” girls can be. As funny as the senior/teen encounters are, it’s the way Anna and Maya deal with the “in” crowd that resonates.
Erskine and Konkle stay in this world for a couple of episodes and they’re the best of the first 10. Able to distill a relationship to slights and desires, they show how fragile friendship can be. The two are great actresses – no matter how old – who can slip into another bracket and tell universal truths.
“PEN15” has more humor than you can imagine (wait until you see them in physical education classes) and a voice that deserves to be heard.
Once you’ve gotten out of the awkward middle school years, you’ll appreciate what they’ve done. “PEN15” leaves an impression that helps heal the hurt.
“PEN15” streams Feb. 8 on Hulu.