In “The Lying Life of Adults,” the lies are elusive things. For those unfamiliar with the Elena Ferrante novel the new Netflix series is adapted from, hearing a premise about a teenage girl looking for answers about her estranged aunt might conjure ideas of generations-long cover-ups and long-held secrets.
What makes this TV version of the story — directed by Edoardo De Angelis and boasting Ferrante among its team of screenwriters — so entrancing is that it downplays the sordid. When Giovanna (Giordana Marengo) begins her search for physical evidence of her aunt Vittoria (Valeria Golino) and the origins of a family split, what she finds doesn’t necessarily contradict much of the story she’s told as she approaches her 16th birthday. “The Lying Life of Adults” is more about assumptions and misunderstandings and willful ignorance of a shared past, leaving the viewer to fill in those gaps, too. The process makes for six episodes that find profound drama in the tiniest details and shifts. It’s par for the course for Ferrante’s works and their resultant adaptations. This new addition is a worthy successor.
The opening episode of the series sets most of Giovanna’s various evolutions in motion. She’s adrift in her high school classes, finding a stronger anchor in best friends Angela and Ida, the daughters of close family friends. That trio helps navigate their shared uncertain time as crushes start to become less theoretical and attention from men and boys alike becomes more aggressive. At home, renewed discussion of Vittoria arrives as Giovanna’s parents begin to recognize and acknowledge changes of their own.
And then comes Vittoria herself. In Golino’s fiery conception, Vittoria is mostly as Giovanna’s been lead to believe: short-tempered, brash, and passionate in ways that mystify the other members of her family tree. But after a few life lessons and some key omitted details from her parents’ telling, it’s also obvious why Giovanna is so drawn to Vittoria. Her aunt offers a new lens through which to see freedom, sex, love, loyalty, and the psychological chessboard where all those ideas interact on a daily basis. Giovanna’s demeanor changes, in ways less perceptible and some more direct and on-the-nose.
Ferrante and co-writers Laura Paolucci, Francesco Piccolo, and De Angelis set this collection of individual trials and self-examination against a country going through its own 1990s identity crisis. Giovanna’s and the sisters’ parents find themselves in the midst of a spiritual tug-of-war for the soul of the communist movement in Naples and beyond. In Giovanna’s gradual consideration of what to take or reject from her elders, she also finds an unlikely pull to charming ambassadors of Catholicism, despite sharing little of their faith.
So even though most of “The Lying Life of Adults” hinges on the most basic ideas of jealousy and betrayal, that background gives all of those developments a grander feel. It’s disorienting at points, but the show does an effective job of capturing the feeling of major events in your life happening beyond your perception. It’s a slow-moving whirlwind that has Giovanna playing detective inside her own mind and those closest to her. And along the way, “The Lying Life of Adults” embraces the idea that no one in this web has all the answers. Even Vittoria at her most sagely moments sometimes slips up and misses what’s drawing Giovanna to her.
It also helps to have De Angelis’ fluid approach to the material. The haze of memory casts a pall over the entire series, but there’s a real grounding here in a sense of time and place. On walks through apartment buildings or piggy-backed on long drives through city streets, there’s a patience in seeing how Giovanna and her various cohorts absorb the world around them. The show is attuned to how people move, whether they’re dancing on a bridge or strolling through a neighborhood or driving with a blatant disregard for lane lines. You can almost see on Marengo’s face the process of Giovanna choosing what of the world around her she’s choosing to accept or abandon.
So “The Lying Life of Adults” isn’t merely outlining a list of grievances or solving a mystery. Like “My Brilliant Friend,” this is another Ferrante adaptation that understands the immense (and possibly outsized) weight that a family heirloom can have. Like “The Lost Daughter,” this shows how a purely academic approach to mending a fraught personal relationship can doom it for good. The show is able to extract the most compelling parts of those ideas without being consumed by them.
All of this swirling, complicated conception of what makes a family and what people within them owe to each other collides with glimpses of the fantastical. Enzo Avitabile’s original music for the series flits in and out, sometimes like a memory on repeat and at sometimes breaking through in bent fragments. With one simple stylistic flourish, the opening of the series’ fourth episode is as elegant as it is efficient, showing how everyone involved in this tangled web experiences change in their own way. For some, it’s escaping into momentary bliss. Others are left with their own thoughts about how to change the parts of themselves they’ve come to hate.
Perhaps it’s trite to say that in this show, the biggest lies are the ones these people tell themselves. But “The Lying Life of Adults” pairs that ambiguity with an understanding of the real effects that single decisions have on entire groups of people, even if the people responsible for those decisions spend the rest of their lives trying to atone for them. Regardless of the reason, in its own way, “The Lying Life of Adults” itself has a certain kind of empathy that its characters can’t always muster.
“The Lying Life of Adults” is now available to stream on Netflix.