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Thursday, September 21st, 2023  

I’m A Virgo

Amazon Prime Video, June 23, 2023

Jun 23, 2023 Photography by Prime Video Web Exclusive
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A 13-foot-tall teenage giant named Cootie emerges after spending his childhood in hiding in I’m a Virgo, an ambitious new Amazon Prime Video series from quirky creator-director Boots Riley. Cootie, played by Jharrel Jerome, contends not only with people who are shocked by his size, but also those who are determined to exploit or demonize him. More surprising still are those in his Oakland, California neighborhood who are even more supernaturally gifted than him, who use those abilities to fight corruption and marginalization–one of the many inventive genre twists that Riley expertly weaves into a setting with all too realistic inner city turmoil.

No one is better suited to play this gentle giant than Jerome. He applies the same wide eyed innocence to Cootie that brought him acclaim on When They See Us and Moonlight. Hilarious hijinks ensue from him adjusting to the outside world, not to mention the community getting used to him.

The half-hour episodes, which are, in turns, zany and bleak seem even shorter thanks to creator Boots Riley’s brisk pacing. The rapper-turned-auteur is sure to earn as many fans with this series as he did with his breakout out 2018 movie Sorry to Bother You. One of the many reasons why is because the series’ Oakland, California streets, nightclubs and burger joints feel photorealistic. That is, until Riley’s subtle, but fantastical world building takes hold.

Riley shoots Jerome from below as the crouched protagonist leans against ceilings in one room after another that are far too small for him. Again and again he peers down and gawks at things the rest of us would dismiss as mundane, but leaves him wowed because he has only seen them on TV. His parents (played with hilarious gruffness by Carmen Ejogo and Mike Epps) built an oversized bedroom to house Cootie out of sight of a world they insist would demonize him. But one day Cootie overhears neighboring teens laughing and enjoying their regular lives on the other side of the leafy wall cloistering him and his plus sized bedroom in his parents’ backyard. As he eavesdrops on the carefree trio, they see his hulking shadow, and excitedly invite him to join them— less out of kindness than curiosity. They become fast friends with Cootie though, and each prove to be as well drawn supporting characters as the protagonist.

The trio are Felix (Brett Gray), who puffs his chest to hide how much of a softy he is, Scat (Allius Barnes), a free spirit who shares Cootie’s love of comic books and Jones (Kara Young), an anti-capitalist activist who organizes demonstrations against rent hikes that are leaving her Black neighbors homeless. It is Jones who is the most creatively developed of the trio, and sure to be compelling for viewers. She is queer and quite a smooth operator with the local ladies. Jones has an even greater flair for rousing speeches. Riley turns these monologues into montages by pairing them with artsy set pieces where actors march in intricate choreography in front of striking handmade backdrops, like something you’d expect to see at a black box theater. It’s visually striking and thematically absorbing for the audience and the actors who can also see these montages thanks to Jones’ telepathic superpower. The best of these sequences involves a troupe of masked actors moving in synchronized steps until those who represent the rich stand on the backs of the poor.

Before Cootie joins Jones at the community center, where she rallies protestors and readies picket signs, he parties with his trio of new friends. They puff joints. They joyride in Felix’s vintage convertible in one particularly memorable scene that involves Cootie dangling off the side and making sparks with his feet on the pavement as Felix cuts donuts in a parking lot. And they hit up a burger joint that Cootie has long fantasized about thanks to its sexualized TV commercials (the oozing condiments and chorus of groans evoking a much different urge than hunger, in one of Riley’s many absurd pop-culture sendups). Cootie balks at the burger after a lifetime of his mother’s home cooking, but takes an immediate liking to Flora, the woman who takes his order. Like Cootie’s size and Jones’ theatrical hypnosis technique, that cashier has a super power of her own: she can think, move and finish tasks at hyper speed. Olivia Washington (Denzel’s daughter), gives a heartfelt performance as Flora, wooing a self-conscious Cootie until they engage in one of the most singular sex scenes in TV or movie history, considering the physical mechanics of Cootie being a 13-foot-giant and her natural pace being super sonic.

Cootie and co. aim their ire at the corrupt health system that fatally turned their friend away, before clashing with the cops. The fascistic police state is exemplified by Jay Whittle (Walton Goggins of Justified, Righteous Gemstones). Scenes in the back half of the series show Whittle’s angsty evenings in a penthouse atop a building that literally revolves around him, or more accurately, the building moves up and down on some sort of hydraulic system that lets him visit different floors, because apparently using an elevator isn’t good enough for him. Goggins is clearly having a hoot as this campy villain, his long hair, slinky jet black clothes and general swagger making him look like a backup dancer for a Broadway jukebox musical about Aerosmith’s career arc, especially the cheesy ‘90s ballads. In fact, one particular scene where he rises from bed and pirouettes shirtless to a vintage song way out of leftfield will leave you transfixed in its absurdity.

Riley keeps us guessing right up until the end, not to mention pulling off a satisfying conclusion from the web of plot and thematic threads he has weaved, is a testament to his skill. That he does so while also making a profound social statement is more impressive still. (www.amazon.com/Im-A-Virgo-Season-1/)

Author rating: 8/10

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