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‘Stranger Things’ review: Winona Ryder plays ’80s mother in nostalgic Netflix series

Winona Ryder stars as a mother whose son

Winona Ryder stars as a mother whose son has disappeared in "Stranger Things." Credit: Netflix / Curtis Baker

WHEN | WHERE Starts streaming Friday on Netflix


WHAT IT’S ABOUT Joyce (Winona Ryder) is a mom in Hawkins, Indiana, whose precocious son, Will (Noah Schnapp), goes missing one dark night in November 1983. A local cop, Chief Hopper (David Harbour), leads a search party, while Will’s pals, Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), conduct their own. They meet up with a mysterious girl, Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), who is mute, and has unusual powers. She may also have ties to an equally mysterious government official, one Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine). Soon enough, local teen Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Will’s brother, Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), conduct their own frantic search. This eight-part horror thriller is produced by North Carolina filmmakers (and brothers) Matt and Ross Duffer.

MY SAY The stranger thing about “Stranger Things” is that this is a kids series, or a YA one. That is a largely untapped space in the ever-expanding TV space — at least untapped beyond the typical kids’ gulags like Teen Nick, the Disney Channel or (of course) vast swathes of the internet. A rarity in the Netflix space, too, this streaming service has essentially built an empire on series that don’t even acknowledge the existence of children, much less cast them.

But nostalgia has been big business for Netflix, and nostalgia is probably the best way to approach “Things,” a trip down memory lane with obvious, fond allusions to ’80s icons like “The Goonies” or “Stand by Me,” also distant echoes of R.L. Stine and Scooby Doo. All that’s missing is one charismatic Great Dane.

“Stranger Things” works best as nostalgia but is far less effective as “thriller.” It isn’t terrible or even half-terrible. Just half-familiar: mind-control; secret government installations; sinister experiments gone awry; revenge of the nerds; libidinous teens (and the evil stalking them). And almost forgot: Flickering lights, because something trapped in another dimension is messing with the electric grid.

These aren’t plot points. They’re tropes, for heaven’s sakes, and the stuff of a thousand movies and shows. Unless your name is Stephen King or Steven Spielberg, there’s only so much new anyone can bring to this potluck supper. The Duffers don’t bring much new.

They do bring a large degree of enthusiasm, however. This is homage born of a youth spent in the darkness of a cineplex, watching (and re-watching) “Some Kind of Wonderful” and “The Lost Boys” and “Teen Wolf” and “Better off Dead” and absolutely everything that began with the words “A John Hughes film.” There’s love here, while the cast — which is good — also brings its game. Ryder channels a classic Spielberg specialty — the single mom frantic over the loss of her kid — while Harbour’s the cynical cop with a tragic back story who eventually discovers his inner hero.

But any genuine scares? Not really many (or any). Too much familiarity will do that.

BOTTOM LINE Largely a nostalgia trip to the ’80s, with few to no scares.

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