What happens when you throw nine perfect strangers into a wellness retreat which blends meditation, dirt digging (read: grave digging), fasting and sack races, with the promise of complete physical and mental transformation at the end of the ten day course? You’ll come to realise that, as much as we all strive for it, there is no such thing as perfection and, if there was, everyone would be even more miserable than they already are. Just ask Ben (Melvin Gregg), one of the nine strangers, whose wife Jessica (Samara Weaving) has booked them into Tranquillum House as a means to reconnect as a couple.
To the others, it looks like Ben and Jessica have it all: the Lamborghini, the Instagram looks – the whole social media package. As we get to know them behind the luxurious doors of Tranquillum, however, a different image transpires. One that shows us the real Jessica, the one who has no sense of self-worth without her daily dose of virtual strangers giving her the thumbs up; the one who has cultivated a life around allowing people to see and comment on her shell, but who is as desperate as she is terrified to be truly seen on the inside. Most of all by her husband Ben, whom she fears has lost all interest in her when, in reality, he has lost all interest in his lottery-winning, purposeless millionaire existence.
Nine Perfect Strangers transports us to a California environment advertised as a place of escapism that actually serves as a battleground of cruel confrontations. Not only for the volatile cocktail of strangers and all their emotional baggage, but the darkest corners of your own mind, your broken heart and your ailing body. Nothing here is random, not even the group of people who sign up for ten days of personal hell. Masha (Nicole Kidman), the “amazing, mystical Eastern-block unicorn”, is the founder and leader of this cult-like resort, and curates these groups based on their personal and medical backgrounds.
Pilot episode ‘Random Acts of Mayhem’ offers a superficial introduction of the participants, each of whom brings their own psychological ingredients into this dangerous mix. Next to Ben and Jessica there’s the closeted prescription drug addict Tony (Bobby Cannavale) in all his bottled up shame; Napoleon (Michael Shannon), a devoted husband and father, trying not to break under the weight of his wife Heather’s (Asher Keddie) grief, and to get his daughter, Zoe (Grace van Patten) to sing in the shower again; Carmel (Regina Hall), an insecure housewife determined to find back to herself or rather, a new version thereof; Francis (Melissa McCarthy), a lonely, middle-aged, hot-flashing novelist no longer able to write herself out of her crises; and Lars (Luke Evans), a pot-stirring narcissist with ulterior motives.
You’d expect any wellness resort to ease its participants in, to give them the time to warm to one another before coaxing their individual darkness out to serve at breakfast, along with their tailored smoothies. Not Tranquillum. Not Masha. She is eager to throw everyone in at the deep end – literally, into their own hand-dug graves. Once they’re all laying down belly-up, looking up into the sky and the surrounding trees, health counsellors Yao (Manny Jacinto) and Delilah (Tiffany Boone) perfect the ritual of the living funeral by throwing dirt on them while Masha lets them in on the real concept behind Tranquillum: “You have come here to die and I’ll bring you back.” Needless to say, it is these types of exercises that will prove far more transformational than any of the superfoods and meditation sessions.
Episode two leads Francis, Tony and co down ‘The Critical Path’, one that is designed to open them up to the true meaning of suffering – the kind they subconsciously want and fear all at the same time. The women especially, are willing to suffer through all types of diet and exercise fads and trendy detox methods in the name of “wellness”, but are fiercely reluctant to confronting their truths, their addictions, their total lack of self-worth. It highlights just how toxic wellness culture has become – just another compulsion, another industry telling us what we should look and feel like, one that typically leads us to the same bad case of “masochistic optimism” Francis experiences in the love-department.
As the author Chuck Klosterman points out in his books ‘Eating the Dinosaur’ and ‘IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas’, one of the main reasons we get depressed is because we have too much time on our hands to think about all the personal and material shortcomings the media repeatedly tells us we have. And as Masha smartly reiterates here, “pre-industrial man didn’t get depressed because he was working.” Based on the book by ‘Big Little Lies’ author Liane Moriarty, Nine Perfect Strangers is a brilliant, sharply-worded study of the human condition – specifically, how we tirelessly work toward pointless purpose while side-lining the things that actually bring meaning to our lives.
As the shadows loom over “gramtastic” and menopausal bodies, humiliated and numb souls, and overcompensating and spiteful spirits, one might wonder if perhaps there are “too many cases in one basket” here. And there are possibly too many superficially wounded people at the table, fuelled by nothing but self-pity, poisonous envy and fruit smoothies. Can they trust each other enough to let themselves fall? Can they trust themselves enough to let go of all they want to be and accept who they have become? Can sweet Carmel drop the sweetly vicious smile and succumb to her anger without the physical urge to express it?
During ‘Earth Day’, the show’s third episode, the participants start to focus more and more on the big questions: What’s your story? What are you in for? This isn’t just reserved for the group members: soon everyone is questioning their motives for having signed up for this. And in most cases the answers are different to their original justifications. In episode two, Masha already hints at intensifying the treatment, much to the concern of Yao and Delilah, who don’t believe the participants are properly prepared yet. Insisting that they are, the group is thrown into a full fast and, unbeknownst to them, their first and last smoothie on Earth Day came spiked with drugs. Or medication. Whichever way you want to look at it.
After a meditation session and a potato sack race, the group is split up, with all the women led to the river by Delilah and the men taken to an avocado tree by Yao. The participants are encouraged to connect with Mother Earth and live off the land, which means that the only food they are allowed to consume must be foraged by them. While most of the women are more concerned with shedding their clothes and suppressed feelings in the hot springs, thereby freeing part of themselves up in order to connect to the others, the men grow increasingly hangry.
What could have been a profound moment of group therapy is cut short by Lars’ need to provoke and Tony’s refusal to live off of walnuts for the rest of the day. So, when the men suddenly find themselves face to face with a goat, they see themselves forced to make a snap decision: which one of them can genuinely call themselves an ethical carnivore?
Ending with an unconventional feast and Napoleon’s devastating attempt at saying grace and sharing his heaviest burden with the table, Nine Perfect Stranger’s leaves us with a bitter taste for more. Staying true to the modern wellness ideal, we are more than happy to immerse ourselves in the type of self-inflicted anguish that ultimately serves us with nothing but the knowledge that we are all indeed, perfectly imperfect.
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