Tiny Pretty Things is an aimless ballet drama with beautiful dancing


Tiny Pretty Things takes center stage on Netflix

At some point, we’re going to have to start differentiating between teen dramas actually meant for teenagers and dramas with teen characters as the protagonists. Tiny Pretty Things, Netflix’s latest adaptation of a YA novel series, is the latter.

Based on the books by Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton, this adaptation takes us to Chicago where the beautiful yet conniving dancers of the Archer School of Ballet are scratching and clawing their way to the top. This Netflix Original, created by Michael MacLennan, is a dance crime thriller with a mystery supposedly at its center.

When Cassie Shore (Anna Maiche), prima ballerina of the school, falls from the roof of the building no one believes that she slipped. The rumor is that she was pushed but no one knows who did it and no one is willing to stick their neck out to uncover the truth. They all have their own secrets to guard about that night, things they don’t want getting out in the open for fear that it could ruin their careers, their relationships, or the careful lies they’ve constructed to make themselves seem innocent.

Enter Neveah Stroyer (Kylie Jefferson), the new girl brought in to distract from Cassie’s tragic fall. She’s talented, unwilling to let other people walk all over her, and capable of taking parts the girls have been working to claim for years. It’s a premise that sounds compelling on paper, but is not executed well in the series. Largely because the writing takes these characters from dramatic beat to dramatic beat without leaving much room for natural character growth or story development.

Not to mention the series struggles under the weight of such a large ensemble cast. Rather than choosing to spend each of its 10 hour-long, episodes focused on one character–a la their backstory, how they fit into Cassie’s case, and their personal journey–we ping-pong between plots, sometimes nonsensically, to get to points the narrative needs to make in order for its plot twists to make half a lick of sense.

The problem, however, is that Tiny Pretty Things isn’t that into the mystery element of its storytelling. Yes, the whodunit is utilized to drive the story forward, but it’s not heart pounding and the series diverges into side plots based on abuses of power more than once which pulls focus. The show also spends no time trying to get the viewer to have an opinion on Cassie.

Her characteristics, behavior, and attitude largely come from the characters that knew her, but other than seeing a young girl in a coma with her boyfriend Nabil (Michael Hsu Rosen) distraught over her circumstances, there’s not much to draw emotionally from her aspect of the story.

So seeing Officer Isabel Cruz (Jess Salgueiro) work tirelessly to find her attacker doesn’t resonate which the writers must have known because even Isabel has a tragic backstory the series teases for half the season until it’s finally revealed. That’s another issue with the series; it has too many stories it wants to tell that it can’t despite having nearly ten hours to do so.

There’s Neveah, the promising new dancer from Inglewood whose sole focus is supposed to be dance but spends much of Tiny Pretty Things looking to take down the authority figures using their power to abuse her and her fellow dancers, all without expecting there to be adverse consequences for speaking out.

That is, of course, mainly after the narrative spends time hitting a cliche beat where she’s from a broken home due to her mother, Makayla (Karen Robinson), being in prison for killing her abuser leaving her to be raised by her brother, Tyler (Araya Mengesha), who sustained a spinal injury when police responding to the scene shot him resulting in his use of a wheelchair for mobility.

There’s a lot to unpack in that backstory that the series does not spend time on outside of a parole hearing, Neveah’s anger toward her mother, and another cliche (and harmful) beat where Tyler essentially says Neveah is the reason he’s alive because a life of wheelchair use apparently means he has no prospects so her dreams are his dreams.

It’s a narrative beat that completely belittles the fact that Tyler’s been Neveah’s guardian since she was 10, he works, loves socializing, is incredibly personable, and is the entire reason she’s decently adjusted considering the trauma they both suffered. There was no reason to have a character who’s been living with his disability for years to go down a narrative path that tired and overdone.

There were opportunities for Tiny Pretty Things to dig deep into its rather diverse ensemble; the series just doesn’t take them. Neveah is one of the only Black ballet dancers at the school. It’s hardly touched on outside of scenes with Caleb (Damon J. Gillespie), the other Black dancer.

Though he has two half-realized storylines himself, one-steeped in deep-seated Islamophobia that he blames on the loss of his father and the other in a wildly inappropriate relationship with an older woman that he believes is actually love.

To be honest, inappropriateness is the one constant in Tiny Pretty Things. The series loves a nude shot and an extended sex scene. Sometimes they’re artfully done, sometimes it seems like the series is trying to hit a quota. The same goes for the random sauna scenes as if the steam room is where these kids go to plot or be vulnerable. But, to be fair, they do have a lot to be vulnerable about.

Bette (Casimere Jollette) is treated as an afterthought by her mother and stuck in her sister’s shadow leading her to do despicable things to try to stay in the spotlight. She develops a drug habit and gets into a relationship with a man the show tries to sell us as sweet despite the fact that we’re introduced to him in a scene where he hurls gay slurs at her friends and gets his behind handed to him for it.

June (Daniela Norman) is desperate and willing to go to any length to try to secure a top spot at Archer. She has a contentious relationship with her mother over her low prospects as a principal dancer which pushes her to make reckless decisions. There’s also a tacked on plot point about who her father is that comes in so late in the series that it might as well have been left out.

Oren (Barton Cowperthwaite) is juggling a relationship with Bette and a friends with benefits situation with Shane (Brennan Clost) all while dealing with an eating disorder he refuses to seek treatment or counseling for. Shane’s talent is finally being recognized, but he also wants someone he can share his success with and worries he’ll never find the right guy only men interested in using him.

And that still doesn’t cover all the storylines and romances this show attempts to develop without actually going anywhere with them in a significant or poignant way that isn’t immediately undermined, left hanging, or dismissed.

Tiny Pretty Things runs the gamut with its story choices as it strives to unveil the darkness of the ballet world, from predators to backstabbing so-called friends. It does so with a lingering eye, but the series has very little to say that doesn’t read as drama for drama’s sake. The dancing, however, is beautiful. That at least has a clear point of view and some of the show’s best moments stem from the time spent on these dancers in their element.

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