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Zoë Kravitz Can Carry a Show If You Let Her

After small parts in movies and ‘Big Little Lies,’ Hulu’s ‘High Fidelity’ puts the actress front and center—and is all the better for it

Hulu/Ringer illustration

In a post-Fleabag world, actresses should have to sign a waiver before attempting to break the fourth wall. Phoebe Waller-Bridge doesn’t own the rights to the time-honored dramatic device, of course. Nor is the new limited series High Fidelity, which premieres on Hulu this Friday, trying to ape the Emmy-sweeping phenomenon with its style of narration—it comes by it honestly, via the 2000 John Cusack film of the same name that showrunners Veronica West and Sarah Kucserka gender-swap and location-shift for 2020. (The first High Fidelity was, in turn, adapted from the 1995 Nick Hornby novel.) Still, the direct-to-camera address places a staggering burden on the actress who chooses to take it on, particularly when the character in question is another brooding, big-city loner pondering the self-destructive failures of her troubled love life.

In High Fidelity, the actress in question is Zoë Kravitz, the genetically blessed scion of celebrity parents stepping for the first time into a muscular leading role. Kravitz was first known as the daughter of musician Lenny and actress Lisa Bonet, who appeared in the original High Fidelity; then as the recipient of small parts in blockbusters like Mad Max: Fury Road and the Fantastic Beasts franchise; and finally as Bonnie Carlson, the sole nonwhite member of Big Little Lies Monterey Five. Kravitz’s character was tragically underdeveloped in Lies celebrated first season, particularly in light of her role in its climax; the less-celebrated second season made a conspicuous effort to rectify that shortcoming, but still failed to afford Bonnie the same nuance or fireworks given to Nicole Kidman’s Celeste Wright or Laura Dern’s Renata Klein. In the near future, Kravitz will play Catwoman in Matt Reeves’s Batman, opposite Robert Pattinson, a role that’s more prominent but largely in keeping with her past work in big-budget features. In substance if not overall reach, High Fidelity is a much bigger leap; for everyone from Amy Adams to Chris Pine, anchoring a high-profile limited series is now as much a signal of stardom as any Oscar campaign.

Kravitz plays Rob Gordan, now short for Robin, an unlucky-in-love record store owner in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights who decides to revisit her checkered romantic past, one “top-five major heartbreak” at a time. Rob’s spiritual journey is triggered by the surprise return of her most recent and most significant ex, Mac (Kingsley Ben-Adir), a charming Brit who abruptly moved across the pond following their breakup more than a year ago. Rob has yet to truly recover. And after having the poor fortune of running into Mac on the way to her first real date since the split, she decides to apply the obsessive, passionate disposition of a lifelong music fan to her own interpersonal CV. The resulting search is a convincing proof of concept for Kravitz as bona fide leading lady, if not always the strongest execution of a doubly familiar concept: High Fidelity in particular, lovelorn singles in the big city in general.

Like so many contemporary reboots, High Fidelity takes pains to give its cast some demographic diversity, a move that’s all the more important when transplanting the action from Chicago’s North Side to the gentrification frontier of Crown Heights. Rob’s employee sidekicks are no longer “musical moron twins,” and neither is played by Jack Black; they’re Cherise (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), a black woman who berates customers while trying to kick-start her own musical career, and Simon (David H. Holmes), a gay white man who’s also Rob’s ex and one of her aforementioned heartbreaks. Rob herself is a biracial and bisexual woman—another major ex is a former girlfriend who’s become an Instagram influencer.

High Fidelity does a better job of introducing these changes than integrating them into the story. As a portrait of New York City, it lacks the precision of Girls, High Maintenance, or Russian Doll, instead using generic stand-ins for upscale coffee shops or divey bars that feel frustratingly vague, trading more in universal stereotypes than lived-in detail. (Like many of these shows, however, there is a friendly bodega guy. He doesn’t approve of Rob’s smoking habit.) And for a show about music, High Fidelity still gravitates decidedly closer to white guys in the late ’90s than a motley crew of millennials in the late 2010s. David Bowie, Sinéad O’Connor, and Blondie all figure prominently into the soundtrack; Cherise insists on blasting “Come on, Eileen” while she opens up the shop. The furthest High Fidelity strays from New Wave and dad rock is when Rob puts on Prince while she’s drafting a playlist. It’s cool to watch Rob prove a condescending asshole wrong with her encyclopedic knowledge of Paul McCartney, but wouldn’t a young woman of color—in the polyglot Spotify era, no less—have a bigger personal catalog? Despite its ostensible themes, no music-related humor in High Fidelity comes close to the razor-sharp satire of Big Little Lies’ joke about Adele and Sade.

Surprisingly, then, it’s High Fidelity’s inherited parts that prove a hindrance to Kravitz’s performance, not the other way around. Prickly, sardonic, and perennially attached to her latest anxiety-soothing cigarette, Rob proves a capable Virgil through the various circles of hell that make up New York’s dating scene. A colleague of mine expressed some skepticism at Kravitz’s casting, wondering whether someone so conventionally attractive could convincingly play an unlucky-in-love mope. But Rob’s issue isn’t making connections—within just a few episodes, she’s gone on a promising first date and hooked up with a charming Scottish musician, all while nursing her still-stinging wounds—but sustaining them, or ever permitting herself the self-scrutiny or introspection necessary for personal growth. A misbegotten evening with Rob’s influencer ex misses the mark as commentary on social media, which Rob eschews like the scoffing Gen Xer she’s based on. A candid conversation afterward where said ex casually explains how Rob’s moodiness made her too much work to be worth the effort, however, legitimately cuts deep.

For a performer whose past roles—one of the near-allegorical Five Wives in Fury Road; a dead movie star in the indie noir Gemini—have often drawn on an enigmatic stoicism, High Fidelity allows Kravitz a fuller range of expression. A cagey tomboy fond of leather jackets and sweater-vests, Rob’s state of mourning fits within Kravitz’s wheelhouse, but in flashbacks and moments of hope, Kravitz shows a sweeter, more easygoing side. A newer love interest to balance out the bygone former ones is played by Jake Lacy, who can’t have more than five years left in his inoffensive beta-male shtick and evidently plans to keep working it until he’s no longer able. He and Kravitz share a cautious kind of chemistry, the kind whose inevitable conclusion you don’t mind waiting for while Rob works through her issues. Instead of a callous jerk coming to terms with himself in less than two hours, Kravitz shapes Rob into something more of-the-times: a “difficult” woman teasing out the blurry line between the wrong she’s done and the wrong that’s been done to her.

Rob has plenty of peers in the modern TV landscape, from Hannah Horvath to Issa Dee to Fleabag herself. High Fidelity isn’t as strong an execution of the female romantic antihero trope as those shows, but it’s a worthy one, mostly as a calling card for whatever Kravitz wants to do next. Maybe that’s Batman sequels, which the size of a DC paycheck would make understandable. Or maybe more romantic comedies could be a rich vein for her to tap (were we still in the business of making those). Either way, High Fidelity gets at least one part of the record store experience right: the surprise and delight of a great discovery—not necessarily new, yet not where you expected either.