Matthew Gilbert – Nov 14, 2018
Age can certainly improve a performer, as experience and mindfulness seep into the work. But there is something miraculous in the best of child actors, a purity and artlessness you know will eventually pass them by as their bodies mature and their self-awareness expands. Their innocence is uncoaxed, their transparency is unlearned, and their hurt and their joy live right there on the surface, in their eyes. They may be cute, but they’re not trying to be cute.
“My Brilliant Friend,” HBO’s eight-episode adaptation of the first of Elena Ferrante’s four Neapolitan Novels, features a pair of astonishing turns by children. The limited series, about the long, complex friendship between Elena and Lila, breathtakingly renders Ferrante’s world on the poor outskirts of Naples in all its simple beauty and cruelty. But its first two episodes, set in the 1950s, are elevated most by Elisa Del Genio and Ludovica Nasti, who play the preteen Elena and Lila, respectively.
They open up the magical thinking of youth, and show the nascent frustrations of being smart girls in a macho culture. They show us how the girls can be extremely sensitive to the nuances of adult behavior, but also resilient beyond their years. Most importantly, they establish our deep connection to and understanding of the two main characters, which will need to last across the series — and, as is planned, three more adaptations.After a brief framing scene, in which the older Elena (Elisabetta De Palo) gets a phone call that her longtime friend Lila is missing, we’re thrown back into the intimate daily lives of the two working-class children. Del Genio’s Elena is a reticent, bittersweet girl who’s considered the smartest in the class — until Lila lets her own natural intelligence show. They ought to be fierce rivals. While Elena, tall and fair, tries to be well-behaved, Lila, short and dark, is mischievous and, at heart, a rebel. But they click, and find warmth in their friendship despite the hardscrabble tenement world where they live and where domestic and mob violence erupt on a regular basis. We see them curled up together reading “Little Women,” a novel they worship and memorize, and it’s clear they’ve found a bubble of salvation with each other.