Based on the homonymous series of autobiographical books by Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend tells the story of two young girls born in the 1940s in a suburb of Naples. Lila (played by Ludovica Nasti as a child and Gaia Girace as a teenager) and Lenù (Elisa del Genio and Margherita Mazzucco) start off as rivals in elementary school, fighting over who is the most brilliant of the two.
Their friendship quickly grows strong and the two girls become inseparable as they get older and learn about the rules of the neighbourhood. Everyone knows everyone in the rione, and sons and daughters are expected to uphold generational family feuds. Contraband is poison of the people, decades before the mafia started dealing in drugs but when the local boss gets killed, the dynamics in the neighbourhood shift and a new family rises to power.
Lila and Lenù are still poor girls, and their uncultured families don’t see any gain in sending their daughters to the expensive middle school when they are old enough to work and earn. And while Lenù’s parents do come round to the idea, Lila won’t continue her academic rivalry with her friend anymore.
The two fall apart, as Lila joins her family’s shoe-making business and Lenù befriends the neighbourhood’s high society. However, without the drive to out-top her friend, Lenù struggles in school. Lila still holds a secret under her worktable: she has not given up on her studies and with her perfect knowledge of Latin she rekindles the girls’ friendship, just before puberty hits and their worries shift away from books.
Lila is rough and indomitable, but that is exactly what charms all the boys in the rione. And even the writers of the series, who by contrast made Lenù a character as flat as the books, Lila is always carrying her along the plot.
As they become young women and Lila attracts the interest of the two most wanted bachelors, Lenù keeps on studying and learning, but in return she distances herself from her family and the customs of the rione. She does what herself and Lila have wanted to do for all their lives: live by the sea. Only for a vacation though, a beautiful time for Lenù, who discovers love. But the vacation is cut short when the inescapable neighbourhood reaches her, and she is drawn back into it.
My Brilliant Friend is a beautifully sweet tale about womanhood, detailing with care the universal feelings of growing up as a woman. The brilliant performances of Lila make the entire series worthwhile. As the first Italian language HBO series, My Brilliant Friend does an amazing job at capturing the essence of the country and bringing to the screen an enticing universe.
Being only the first instalment of a series of four books, the ending does lack breadth. Something which will keep the audience enticed for more, but unfortunately leaves it lacking as a stand-alone season.