What Netflix’s ‘Stranger Things’ Gets Right About Spielberg Kids And ’80s Suburbia

It's not just paying homage to the work of Steven Spielberg, it understands what made that work so special.

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As soon as Stranger Things began and descended into a suburban basement, all wood-panelling and shag carpet, where a Dungeons & Dragons-esque campaign was underway, I had a feeling it was the show for me.

Here was a vision of the 1980s that, unlike the day-glo pink chintz of so many recent ‘80s period pieces, finally felt in tune with my childhood: one spent in brown-toned interiors hazy with smoke, where yellow and red plastic lampshades cast an eerie glow over bowls of spaghetti thick with grated Coon cheese and butter.

I didn’t play a tabletop RPG until my late-teens, but my young friends and I maintained a long-running “RPG” we called “Rats” (literally, we were rats; the end), and I’ve been playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons for a decade now. So, watching Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) and his friends Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) play their own RPG, complete with miniature figurines and shoddily-drawn battlemat, was a nice generalised nostalgia hit.

But it was only when Dustin groaned, “Oh Jesus, we’re so screwed if it’s the Demogorgon!” that I knew Stranger Things was going to be a really special show — because it was at that moment (a mere two minutes in) that I knew its creators the Duffer Brothers weren’t just paying homage to the work of Steven Spielberg, they understood what made that work so special.

In short: that childhood is hell and kids are little shits. And it’s this little detail that makes Netflix’s new Duffer Brothers series, Stranger Things, such a delight to watch.

In fact, “shitty kids” is my number one, all-time favourite thing about Spielberg’s work. He’s regularly lauded as a great director of children — along with his idol and one-time star, Francois Truffaut — but the key genius of Spielberg’s depiction of kids is that he (and the screenwriters he works with, like the late, legendary Melissa Mathison) knows how revolting they can be, to their families and to each other.

That Stranger Things is a Spielberg riff is fairly obvious to even a casual observer, from its 1983 milieu to its Benguiat titles. There are plenty of other easter eggs and nods to ‘70s and ‘80s sci-fi, and Stranger Things is also, crucially, a work of horror as well as science fiction, and the specific threads of horror that emerged from Reagan-era paranoia courtesy of Stephen King and John Carpenter. (As my friend and colleague Rikki put it, “‘What if there are [monsters] in the walls but also literally government spying devices in the walls?’ is about the best thing I could ever ask of speculative fiction.”)

But the Spielberg thread is the strongest, because the Duffers’ understanding of the director’s work is so astute, they’ve blown every other Spielberg-aping project (and there’ve been plenty of them) out of the water. To understand how, first we have to look back.

The True Legacy Of Steven Spielberg 

It’s always interesting to talk to people about the legacy of Spielberg’s ‘golden period’, since most have misremembered him as a sentimental bore, when in fact Spielberg’s key themes are grief, separation, longing and loss. They remember the ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’ riff at the end of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, but not Brad Neary hitting his UFO-addled father on the arse with a ping-pong paddle.

Similarly, for many people E.T. the Extra Terrestrial is code for “Drew Barrymore being cute” or “E.T and Elliot hugging” rather than the kids yelling at each other, or the desperate sadness that suffuses the entire film. We whistle the soaring ‘Flying‘ theme but have forgotten the way the aching harp piece, ‘The Beginning Of A Friendship‘, melts into the paranoid cue that accompanies the government bad guys.

As critic Matthew Wilder wrote upon the film’s 20th anniversary re-release, E.T. was a way of working through post-Vietnam grief. “Among Spielberg’s countless masterstrokes was inventing a story that performs cathartic therapy on every imaginable audience […] What makes the man an artist is his insistence on our experiencing primal emotions without disposing of them.”

My first interaction with the work of Steven Spielberg, at the age of three, was certainly cathartic, if not somewhat traumatic (it is also my earliest memory!). I was carried, screaming, from an Adelaide cinema, which was screening E.T. during its 1985 re-release. It was the forest scene shortly after E.T. had fled Elliot’s house, and I remember my mother whispering, “It’s okay, it’s daytime in the movie now! Nothing bad can happen!” but I had tapped out.

A few years later, I was able to watch the film in full (borrowed on VHS from the late, great Video Flash Albert Park), and I can pinpoint the moment I knew it was the film for me:

Well, to be honest, E.T. had already intoxicated me from the moment Allen Daviau’s camera snuck into a suburban Los Angelean house to watch over a game of Dungeons & Dragons. There, on the screen, was a childhood just like mine: a younger kid, constantly on the outer (“We’re in the middle, Elliot. You can’t just join any universe in the middle!”), obsessed with storytelling and science fiction and pizza. And, crucially, a group of children who shit-talked each other just like we did in the playgrounds of St Joseph’s School in 1987.

So, too, are the kids of Stranger Things little shit-talkers, none more so than the remarkable McLaughlin as Lucas, a kid so frequently contemptuous towards his pals (and newfound friend, Eleven) I found myself wincing at his cruelty. It’s a complex, challenging performance that pays dividends towards the series’ end.

The Asshole Spielberg Kid

Stranger Things is also a marked contrast with that other high-profile example of ‘Spielbergalia’, J.J. Abrams’ 2011 love letter to the director, Super 8.

That film was so crammed with nods to Spielberg’s work it rated a “Dawson Leery” on the International Spielberg Stalker Scale, from the more obvious down to the delightfully obscure. (When Super 8’s alien beings escape the water tower, they do so as flying cuboids, which was an initial concept for the aliens who emerged from Close Encounters’ mothership).

The great failing of Super 8, though it was a perfectly enjoyable film, was that nothing about its professional and polite cast of young teens read as Spielbergian. Think back to Close Encounters, a major touchstone for both Stranger Things and Super 8, and see how we’re first introduced to the Neary kids.

Roy attempts to teach his eldest son a maths problem by staging a potential accident using the model train set; Brad has to work out the equation in order to move the box car off the tracks and prevent a crash (“Quickly, Brad, there are thousands of lives at stake”). Brad instead chooses to let the “people” die, relishing in the miniature train crash with the glee of a supervillain. Through all this, in the background, Toby decapitates his sister’s doll by beating it against the edge of the playpen.

The kids are, in short, assholes. Later, when his father has a nervous breakdown, Brad can only yell “YOU CRYBABY!” repeatedly while slamming the door in his parents’ faces as their marriage disintegrates in the bathroom (Mmm, love that treacly Spielberg sentimentalism!). This family dynamic is echoed in Stranger Things as Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) struggles with his mother Joyce’s (Winona Ryder) belief that Mike is still alive; his mother, to him, is going mad, and he hates her for it, because he loves her so much.

(I could write another 5,000 words on Ryder’s performance alone, in part to address the idiocy of drawing comparisons between Joyce’s behaviour and that of Roy Neary’s. No! Joyce’s ‘remodelling’ of the home isn’t an ode to Roy’s living-room-sized Devil’s Tower model; Joyce is a Spielberg Mom, driven to distraction by her love for her children, and already left hanging by a thread by an absent husband/father, duh!)

If I’m making it sound like Spielberg kids are dicks around the clock, that’s not my intention, but rather to make the point that depictions of children on-screen should be playful and innocent as well as complex and dangerous.

Let’s Scare All The Kids

The only time Super 8’s kids fully occupied the sensibility of the Spielberg golden age was over the closing credits, when their 8mm masterpiece — “THE CASE” — is finally revealed, and the kids finally seem normal and a bit shit:

It’s a testament to the talents of the adolescent cast that they were able to move between the syrupy tone of Super 8 itself and the amateurish realism of The Case. The former is not their fault; Abrams’ directorial style is too reverential, too sentimental, to completely capture the discomfort of Spielberg’s late-’70s and early-’80s family dynamics. In Abrams’ film proper, the young cast seem so capable and unflappable. “Spielberg kids”, on the other hand, are frequently terrified –think of E.T. and Gertie’s first meeting — and often have to fail a number of times before they work out how to save the day.

This, again, is the beauty of Stranger Things. Will doesn’t greet the unseen monster with wide-eyed wonder or military-like capability; he’s terrified beyond belief. Similarly, Mike and his pals are, to begin with, not very good at their newfound roles, whether dealing with Eleven’s emerging powers, or keeping a step ahead of shady government figures. It takes them nearly eight episodes to learn what they need to do. When the shady guys give chase, all Mike can think to do is frantically instruct his mother, “If anybody calls for me, tell them I left the country!” as he races out the door.

Though it has, in theory, been made for adults, I hope children watch Stranger Things. If you’ve watched a “children’s film” lately, you’ll know that much of kids’ media is sentimental mush that’s about as dangerous as a pot of strained yoghurt (“No bits!”) housed in a padded cell, but kids should be frightened. In this way, the scary monsters and scarier “bad men” of Stranger Things –like E.T.’s aliens and FBI guys — are tailor-made for young viewers.

As psychologist Bruno Bettelheim wrote in his seminal text, The Uses Of Enchantment: “The prevalent parental belief is that a child must be diverted from what troubles him most: his formless, nameless anxieties, and his chaotic, angry, and even violent fantasies”. “Many parents believe that only conscious reality or pleasant and wish-fulfilling images should be presented to the child … but such one-sided fare nourishes the mind in a one-sided way, and real life is not all sunny.” (Would you believe that I first read that quote, in my youth, in Joseph McBride’s biography of Steven Spielberg?)

Bettelheim was talking primarily about fairytales (and especially the Grimms’ dark and violent fare; I once saw a grown woman march into The Little Bookstore with a copy of Grimms’ Tales and demand a refund “for this filth!”), but his words can be readily applied to cinema, or, in this case, television. If you’ve got a kid, sit down and watch Stranger Things with them — and don’t forget the pizza.

Stranger Things is on Netflix now.

Clem Bastow is an award-winning writer and critic with a focus on popular culture, gender politics, mental health, and weird internet humour. She’s on Twitter at @clembastow.