Millie Bobby Brown goes to “Eleven”

Today is Millie Bobby Brown’s 17th birthday, which gives me the perfect excuse to talk about one of the most astonishing and authentic performances by a child actor that I’ve ever seen. Brown’s rendering of Eleven on Stranger Things is so mind-bogglingly good, it’s easy to forget that she only utters 246 words in the entire first season.

Just eleven years old (ELEVEN!) at the time of filming Stranger Things 1, Brown was selected from a field of about 300 girls. Eleven (“Elle”, as she is lovingly nicknamed by friend and future suitor Mike Wheeler) was a key role in the series, and, since the character says so few words, the actress who played her needed to be able to communicate a variety of intense emotions using primarily her body language and facial expressions. Casting director Carmen Cuba (who deservedly won an Emmy for Outstanding Casting of a Drama Series) hit the jackpot with Brown.

Seriously – she. is. just. so. fucking. good.

Of course, the rest of the cast is amazing as well, including the four boys whose friendship forms the heart of the series. The performances by all the kids are impressive; for my money, you’d have to go back to Stand By Me and E.T. to find performances this good by a group of child actors. Too often, child actors put on airs, masquerading as tiny adults without conveying authentic emotions. But these kids are REAL.

The comparisons to Stand By Me and E.T. are apt, because the Duffer brothers conceived Stranger Things as “What if Steven Spielberg directed a Stephen King movie?” Like those films, the series’ success hinges on the collective performances of the youngsters. The comparison to Stand By Me is especially appropriate, because like that movie, the series is about friendship and the sacrifices we make for it.

Bottom line, we must believe these kids have been friends for years, and we do. Of course, in the case of Eleven, she is brand new to the group, and though that initially causes some friction among the boys (particularly between Mike and Lucas, who is skeptical of Elle’s motives and views her as an interloper), eventually she is accepted into the group unconditionally.

Through it all, Elle learns about love and friendship, things she never knew, having spent her first twelve years as a laboratory subject. Brown conveys these new emotions with awe and wonder. But she really shines when communicating Elle’s rage – rage at her former captors, who continue to hunt her down, determined to imprison her at Hawkins lab once again; rage at the bullies who torment her new – and only – friends; rage at the demogorgon, whom she brought back from the Upside Down. By the climax of the season finale, that rage boils over, and she faces down the demogorgon, channeling all of her raw emotion, sending it – and herself – back to the Upside Down.

Eleven’s character arc was supposed to end with season 1, but Brown was so preternaturally good, the Duffers wisely chose to extend it. And while the storylines may have suffered a bit in subsequent seasons, Brown’s performance has been a consistent highlight throughout, especially in her scenes with David Harbour as police chief/adoptive father Hopper. At the end of season 3, she believes Hopper dead, and as she reads the letter Hopper had written to her earlier in the season, Elle’s grief is palpable, and Brown breaks our hearts all over again.

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