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Gleefully Lurid 'Brand New Cherry Flavor' Explores The (Black) Magic Of The Movies

L to R: Lisa (Rosa Salazar) gets more than she bargained for from Boro (Catherine Keener) in Netflix's <em>Brand New Cherry Flavor</em>.
L to R: Lisa (Rosa Salazar) gets more than she bargained for from Boro (Catherine Keener) in Netflix's Brand New Cherry Flavor.

The trippy, lurid and defiantly weird Netflix series Brand New Cherry Flavor wears its influences on its blood-flecked sleeve. Scenes involving a character periodically vomiting up several [spoiler], or discovering a new orifice on their torso, aspire to the exultant body horror of David Cronenberg.

Whenever Catherine Keener's mysterious witch Boro suddenly appears — grinning, watchful, still — amid crowds of people at parties inside swanky art galleries or Hollywood Hills homes, you are meant to recall David Lynch's Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway.

The version of Hollywood depicted in the eight-episode series is one prone to going feathery at the edges, the way films like Barton Fink address the notion of Los Angeles as "The Dream Factory" by forcibly smearing it into the realm of surreal nightmare.

Which is not to say that Brand New Cherry Flavor doesn't succeed in telling its own strange, gruesome, often humorous tale (it's remarkable how well it manages to be dryly funny amid all its wet gore). I cite the filmmakers to which the series is indebted simply to acknowledge that all of its borrowing is clearly both intentional and deliberate.

That may not be immediately apparent in the comparatively restrained episode one, when we meet young Lisa Nova (Rosa Salazar) as she arrives in Los Angeles to crash on the couch of her friend Code (a woefully underused Manny Jacinto) so she can take a meeting with the washed-up producer (Eric Lange) who's expressed interest in her student film.

The series cruises along the broad, sunny freeway of its main plot — Lisa wants to direct the movie that will be based on her student film — for so long that you start to wonder when or if it will take that off-ramp onto the dark surface-streets teeming with the fun stuff promised in the promotional materials — revenge, murder, magic curses, shadowy entities, popped eyeballs, zombies, worm-laced cocaine, creepy plants, poisonous toads, a love interest (Jeff Ward) outfitted with a hilariously convenient death-wish that keeps him hanging around Lisa long after he should flee her — but once it does make that turnoff, it hits the accelerator.

Lisa Nova (Rosa Salazar) in <em>Brand New Cherry Flavor,</em> a tale of Hollywood ... and vines.
/ Netflix
Lisa Nova (Rosa Salazar) in Brand New Cherry Flavor, a tale of Hollywood ... and vines.

The characters in Brand New Cherry Flavor confront an endless series of deeply disturbing (sometimes pulsating, often slimy, always creepy) things as they go about their day, but one of the series' most appealing (and funny) aspects is the degree to which its two leads — Salazar and Keener — roll with everything they're dealt with.

Salazar's large, searching eyes can and do express surprise, but her demeanor, and especially her voice, suggest someone so preternaturally unflappable that she shouldn't be messed with. (You'll find out the reason for that, if you stick with the series.)

Keener underplays her role, too, delivering her dialogue with a wry, knowing, everyday matter-of-factness, even — especially — when she's discussing the mundane particulars of, say, blood-magic vs. sex-magic. A scene midway through the series, in which Boro takes Lisa along to revisit some people from Boro's past, is an example of Brand New Cherry Flavor playing to its idiosyncratic strengths: The two actors fall into a fluid, symbiotic rhythm — Salazar all sardonic defiance, Keener all smiling, shoulder-shrugging resignation. Both characters project a blithe confidence that they're in control of any given situation, but the key difference — the thing that drives the engine of the series — is that Keener's character is actually in control, while Salazar's only pretends to be.

Some viewers will find Lisa profoundly unlikeable as a lead. To them, her determination to direct a major studio movie with only a single student film under her belt makes her foolish, demanding, even spoiled. Certainly the fact that, when denied that opportunity, she immediately sets out to seek vengeance against Lange's sleazy producer in the form of an irrevocable curse won't help her case.

But the series knows exactly what it's doing. Lange plays her victim, producer Lou Burke, with a smarmy, avuncular charm that can curdle into toxic rage and preening entitlement on a dime. (His is the only character who gets to register how truly insane things get, as the series goes on; Lange, an actor who's turned up on your TV in roles large and small for years, gets a long overdue chance to shine, and seizes it.)

And yes, the revenge Lisa seeks is extreme, outsized, disproportionate. That's the whole point — her desire for vengeance creates a vortex of pain and misery (and creepiness) around her that draws in everyone and everything around her.

Late in the series, we finally get an explanation of who and what, exactly, Keener's character truly is, and where she comes from. It's all a bit undercooked, as is the precise nature of her connection to Salazar's character, and at such moments the series vacillates between being intriguingly mysterious and frustratingly vague.

But by that time you hit that scene, you'll have been on the long, strange, and deeply trippy trip that Brand New Cherry Flavor takes you on long enough that you'll most likely do what most of the characters on the series do, whenever they're faced with the uncanny or arcane: shrug, and keep going.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.