Perhaps the Irish author Sally Rooney chose the rather generic title Conversations with Friends for her first novel because a more fitting one — something like The Quirks of Being a Wallflower, or The Irks of Being a Wallflower? —Would be a little too on the nose. Rooney’s university-years story (and the new series adaptation of it, premiering May 15 on Hulu) is about a shy, retiring type with a slow-moving storm within her. There are conversations with friends (and lovers and potential mentors) to be had, but the biggest dialogue happening is an interior one.
The series concerns 21-year-old Frances (newcomer Alison Oliver), a quiet, ambitious, curious student in Dublin who has recently fallen out of a romance with Bobbi (Sasha Lane), now demoted (or, some might argue, promoted) to best friend. Bobbi and Frances have a spoken-word poetry act that they perform at local coffee houses and the like, which brings them to the attention of an older, established writer, Melissa (Jemima Kirke), and her laconic actor husband, Nick (Joe Alywn). It’s unclear why these decrepit 30 somethings would want to spend time with this pair of fledglings, except that something about Frances and Bobbi’s youth must be a distraction from Melissa and Nick’s complex adult concerns.
Inevitably, some tensions arise, mostly because Frances and Nick enter into an affair that quickly consumes all of Frances’s waking thoughts. It’s not an obsession, really — that would suggest something one-sided, which this is definitely not. But Frances does lose sight of her old self as she dives headlong into a period of sexual and emotional exploration, wondering if she cracked the code of this taciturn older man or if she is terribly deluding herself. Maybe it’s both.
The series was adapted by Alice Birch and much of it is directed by Lenny Abramsonboth of whom worked on the 2020 Hulu adaptation of Rooney’s second novel, Normal People. Their house style is a sort of woozy, downbeat frankness. The color palette is muted; the music arrives more as punctuation than underscoring; the central performances are restrained almost to the point of silence. That is especially true of Conversationswith its two terse lovers occupying so much space.
For perhaps too much of the series’ twelve-episode run, the hush at its center proves frustrating. Frances is so recessive that she’s almost a non-character. You wish someone, maybe Bobbi, would shake her by the shoulders and plead with her to wake up. (Eventually, she does.) Nick is so stilted and closed off that it’s hard to believe him as an actor. It’s great that these two mimes found each other, but they’re not terribly compelling to watch.
Eventually, though, the true intention of Rooney’s lo-fi saga reveals itself. Frances is, it turns out, undergoing a rather profound evolution, passing through a hallmark crucible of growing up. The series chronicles Frances’s hard-won realization — one shared by many of us who have spent a lot of time in our head — that she does, in fact, move through the world with consequence. What she imagines is more passive observation does have an effect on what she’s witnessing. That can be a boggling thing to comprehend for someone who figures she is invisible, or at least downplays her significance in any given ecosystem.
There’s a selfishness to that assumption — a haughtiness, too. Frances has a keen intellect, and a political conviction that occasionally jabs out at mostly well-meaning people in her orbit. Can her shyness be attributed to a deeply, perhaps even subconsciously, held belief that she is smarter than everyone else? Sure. A little, anyway. Conversations with Friends is sharp enough to be critical of its protagonist. But Frances also intensely doubts herself: she worries about her looks, her social prowess, her inability to glow quite like Bobbi and Melissa do, to sail through the world with such ease.
She’s wrong about that ease, of course. And wrong in thinking that she can prod at the world without it poking back, or otherwise responding to her touch. This is a subtle thing to try to illustrate outside the internal monologue of a novel, but the series does get there eventually. That’s owed to the introspective delicacy of the writing, and to the particular actorly rapport shared by Oliver, Lane, and Kirke. (Kirke is especially striking in a few charged scenes toward the end.) I’m not quite sure where Alwyn fits into that picture; too often his man-of-few-words routine reads as flatness.
He’s convincing in the sex scenes, at least, which are maybe why a portion of this show’s viewers will tune it at all. Like Normal People before it, Conversations with Friends frequently turns away from its navel to revel in the release of bodily communion. Those scenes are especially vital here, as they’re the most expressive the two leads ever get to be. But this is not exactly erotica. The sex is narratively instructive, advancing Frances’s journey rather than pausing for more transcendent tryst.
Still, invigorating as those scenes may be, Conversations with Friends spends much of its middle section in a drift. A trip to a lovely seaside home in Croatia livens up the scenery (oh how drab Dublin is rendered on this show), but the characters remain stuck in their little swirls. The repetitive push and pull of Frances and Nick’s commingling may be familiar to those who’ve experienced something similar — all that longing constantly at war with practical doubt — but as entertainment, it’s taxing.
There is the payoff of the series’ last couple of episodes, at least, in which Rooney’s thesis is laid out and we feel the rush of an aching nostalgia for our own wobbly-legged first steps into the adult world, both plodding and reckless. This is, perhaps, an advertisement for the experience of reading the novel, in which Frances can speak more loudly than she ever does on screen.