Hollywood’s summer blockbuster season tends to be a time when studios go out of their ways to make sure their smaller projects built around original concepts aren’t getting drowned out by the noise from the latest installment of bigger name, established franchises — superhero IP, especially. Amazon’s I’m a Virgo from writer / director Boots Riley isn’t driving in quite the same lane as Sony’s Across the Spider-Verse or Warner Bros. Discovery’s The Flash. But the series’ genre-blending story about a 13-foot-tall Black teenager — a kid from Oakland whose love of corporate-owned IP is part of what makes his sheltered existence bearable — is a provocative challenge to audiences who love those kinds of big-screen spectacles to ask themselves why.
There’s so much more to Cootie (Jharrel Jerome) — the gargantuan 19-year-old hiding at the center of I’m A Virgo — than his size or his strength, but those are the very first things about him that the show highlights as it’s detailing the circumstances of his birth and early childhood. Even as a newborn, Cootie was already almost too large for either his aunt Lafrancine (Carmen Ejogo) or his uncle Martisse (Mike Epps) to hold or handle with any comfortability. But that, along with Cootie’s massive appetite and propensity for accidentally breaking things, were just some of the many unexpected quirks the pair were forced to get accustomed to as they secretly raised their unusual nephew in their modest Oakland home.
For almost 20 years, Martisse and Lafrancine dedicate every waking moment of their lives to making sure that Cootie is safe and sequestered away but connected enough to the outside world through books and the television for him to be able to appreciate why, lonely as he is, being cooped up is for his own good. Like any homebound kid living with strict parents, Cootie dreams of being able to go outside and experience all the world has to offer, like brand-new comic books or the highly processed fast food he’s always seeing advertised on TV. But as guileless and naive as Cootie is about many things, he understands that his stature makes him very different from most other folks and how “normal” people have a very long history of killing giants like him out of a deep and somewhat irrational sense of fear.
Through its depiction of Cootie — an awkward but endlessly curious and kindhearted young man Jerome inhabits with a boyish charm — and his parents, whose strict rules are a reflection of their love for him, I’m a Virgo is very explicitly telling a tale about what it means to be (or to raise) children whose Blackness and brilliance makes them too “big” for the world.
Cootie’s gigantism is the way that Black children are robbed of their childhoods because of how other people perceive them to be older than they actually are and more deserving of punishment. Cootie’s gigantism is the boundless potential for greatness parents see in their Black children knowing full well that the society they’re living in isn’t designed to help them maximize it but, rather, to stifle it. It’s also a rather direct way of unpacking how, even when Black people manage to play the game successfully and reach the upper echelons of fame and fortune, the specter of racism by way of dehumanization is never all that far away.
As the child of parents who fancy themselves revolutionaries, Cootie understands many of the ideas baked into his metaphorical existence, and someone of I’m a Virgo’s best bits of character development are telegraphed through moments when he perceives things about his reality that should only be apparent to the show’s audience. But for all that understanding and maturity, Cootie’s also just a lonely kid who really just wants and needs some friends his own age, which is why it’s somewhat easy for him to just go with the flow when a group of other kids from the neighborhood encounter him one evening after he risks sneaking out.
Though I’m a Virgo is more than just a coming-of-age narrative, it’s those parts of the show that stand out as feeling the most vibrant and uniquely like the product of Riley and his co-showrunner Tze Chun’s playful, idiosyncratic artistic sensibilities. As Cootie spends more time with the boys and Jones — a queer, revolutionary-minded community organizer whose speeches about Marxist crisis theory and the structural violence of capitalism sometimes warp reality around her — his world begins to open up, and so, too, does the show’s focus.
Cootie, with all of his overenthusiastic love for the outside world, simply doesn’t have the deeper, contextual knowledge to understand how the rolling blackouts plaguing his neighborhood, the lack of accessible hospitals there, and the ubiquitous presence of a corporate-owned, costumed crime fighter known as the Hero (Walton Goggins) are all interconnected. But it’s through Cootie’s friends, and with the help of Flora (Olivia Washington), an idealistic aspiring chef stuck working at a fast food restaurant, that he’s able to begin to perceive the ways in which late-stage capitalism influences every facet of their lives and disproportionately harms people like them specifically, as it’s meant to.
I’m a Virgo gets surprisingly heavy and grim in its critiques of our society as Cootie’s story becomes one about finding his purpose in a world that both fears and / or reveres him. But the show is so thoroughly infused with a sense of whimsy that it always feels like it’s trying to remind you that, bad as things may be in the moment, art and imagination are two of the most powerful tools at people’s disposals to guard their minds against the harshness of reality.
In a summer that’s already overstuffed with big-budget live-action spectacles that look expensive but don’t exactly sell you on their fantasies, I’m a Virgo stands out in terms of illustrating how a little bit of practicality in the effects department can do wonders to make a production feel inspired. Cootie’s size and I’m a Virgo’s ability to sell you on the idea of him awkwardly, exuberantly moving through the world is its most obvious and immediately impressive feat. But it’s in inspired concepts like the way Flora moves and how the Hero operates out of a skyscraper with levels that periodically rise up and down around him that you can see I’m a Virgo not just trying to depict things you’re familiar with differently but working to create visual delights that have a deeper narrative significance.
I’m a Virgo’s effectiveness on that front — on using elements of fantasy to delve into the complex realities of its subject matter — is undoubtedly a bright spot throughout most of the series. But toward the end of the show, right when it seems like it’s trying to get down to brass tacks, I’m a Virgo loses steam with a surprising suddenness that might leave some viewers a bit let down. Even with all that said, I’m a Virgo is a triumph of the imagination and the sort of shortform (seven half-hour episodes) summer gem that’s more than easy to breeze through in a weekend, which is why you’re almost guaranteed to start hearing people recommend it once the show drops on June 23rd.