'The End of the F***ing World' is the start of a romantic thriller

Alex Lawther and Jessica Barden in <em>The End of the F***ing World</em>. (Photo: Netflix)
Alex Lawther and Jessica Barden in The End of the F***ing World. (Photo: Netflix)

At the start of The End of the F***ing World — a new eight-part series now streaming on Netflix — James (Alex Lawther), a blank-faced 17-year-old, tells us that he thinks he’s probably a psychopath and that he’d like to kill someone. In fact, he thinks he may want to kill this girl he just met, Alyssa (Jessica Barden). But curiosity wins out over death wish, and romantic attraction soon overtakes curiosity, and the next thing you know, James and Alyssa are roaming around the British countryside, committing crimes and trying to get in touch with their feelings.

Based on a graphic novel by Charles Forsman, The End of the F***ing World is the story of this emotionally restrained couple’s misadventures, as they run away from their respective homes and defy the law. The duo is in some ways a contemporary, British version of the young couple Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek played in Terrence Malick’s debut film, Badlands (1973), and like Malick, adaptor and co-director Jonathan Entwhistle maintains a subdued tone in contrast to the sometimes violent actions of its protagonists.

World starts out poker-faced, trying a bit too hard for deadpan humor, as when James tells us via voice-over narration, “I thought she could be interesting to kill,” and a short while later, Alyssa tells us via voice-over narration, “I kind of think I would fall in love with him. Also, he has a car.” But as the story proceeds, James and Alyssa warm to each other and we warm to them — they become people with emotions we can recognize, rather than the heartless adolescents they like to impersonate when they’re among adults.

World has some terrific set pieces, such as the duo’s sloppy robbery of a gas station, and some dull patches, such as a meeting with Alyssa’s father late in the series that almost drags the story to a halt. But overall, James and Alyssa are ultimately two people we care about, and Lawther and Barden give exceptional, subtle performances.

The End of the F***ing World is streaming now on Netflix.

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