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An Appreciation of Kaitlyn Dever in Netflix's Unbelievable

Her devastating performance is just one reason why people can't stop talking about the new limited series.
  • Kaitlyn Dever in Unbelievable (Netflix)
    Kaitlyn Dever in Unbelievable (Netflix)

    2019 has been a big year for Kaitlyn Dever. This summer she starred in the critically acclaimed comedy Booksmart, and she's followed that breakout role with a devastating turn in the hard-to-watch but vital Netflix limited series Unbelievable. Over the course of her young career, Dever has swung from comedy to drama in both television and film, delivering range and nuance across both genres. Before Unbelievable, she had recurring roles in Justified and Last Man Standing, parts which underscore exactly why Dever has scored leading roles in such diametrically opposed projects.

    There isn't a lot of room for levity in Unbelievable, which is based on a true story and adapted from T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong’s Pultizer Prize-winning article, "An Unbelievable Story of Rape." Dever plays Marie Adler, an 18-year-old woman who has grown up in the foster system and is finally getting a taste of independence.After she's raped in her own apartment (at a complex for at-risk youth) by a masked assailant, she undergoes intense questioning by the police multiple times. In the penultimate episode, a court-appointed counselor tells her she was assaulted twice: first by the attacker, and then by the detectives who poured doubt over her witness statement.

    Despite her physical wounds — including evidence of binding — suspicion about the validity of the events she's describing occurs early on. Marie’s only "crime" is that she doesn't behave in a manner that fits expectations for a victim of this kind of assault. She doesn’t cry hysterically, but the constant wringing of her hands and the tremor in her leg is an indicator of trauma. On a shopping trip for new bedsheets, she swings between joyfully riding the shopping cart and yelling at the store employee because they no longer stock the sheets she had. Her former foster mom, Colleen (Bridget Everett) can’t understand why she would want a reminder of the bedlinen upon which she was raped. Everyone has an opinion about how she should be dealing with this, but no one really takes the time to listen to her. Instead, inconsistent details and a "feeling" that something is off about her account condemn her to the status of criminal rather than a victim. Throughout this, Dever evades eye contact, adding to the notion that she is detached. Again, this is viewed through the lens of fabricating the event, further adding to the horror of her ordeal.

    The two detectives explain that they are doing her a favor by calling her out on this "lie" at an early juncture. Instead, they follow this up by charging her with filing a false police report to make an example out of her. Trust is not something Marie gives away easily, but she also finds it hard to get adults to believe her. It's as if her broken childhood has permanently stained her character. Her lip trembles, a single tear falls down her cheek, and in the eyes of the law, she is now a liar. 

    From Charlie (Dominic Monaghan) in Lost to Orange Is the New Black’s Tiffany Doggett (Taryn Manning), it seems hoodies are the go-to garment for characters who want to disappear on screen. In Unbelievable, Marie’s hoodie allows her to move as if she is almost invisible from the prying eyes of those who think she's the girl who cried rape. Dever is small in stature, but as Marie, she hunches and reduces her size (and power) further. She can't drive, so her bike is her only source of transport and freedom, allowing her to whisk past the baying press. As the walls close in and her world gets smaller, it would be easy to have her act out or rage uncontrollably. There are moments in which she breaks the rules, but the punishment is swift. At every turn, another authority figure lets her down. She is heartbroken when she can’t wait for Colleen at her home, as her husband says he can’t be alone with her. The devastated look on Dever’s face as she finally realizes why he is afraid to be in the house with her by himself is haunting. She radiates fear for other men. Some use this to intimidate in the form of a "joke," like the supervisor on the loading dock where she works, who won’t step out of her way. The police and press have made her a pariah and a laughing stock.

    There are moments of kindness from strangers that give Marie the hope she's desperately searching for, and in those moments her smile lights up the room. From the court clerk who scores her a great lawyer, to the lawyer who actually does his due diligence (seriously, sometimes the bare minimum on this show feels like a huge victory), to the therapist who recognizes the monumental injustice. These are the people who reward her resilience. Other than a phone call, she doesn’t interact with co-stars Merritt Wever and Toni Colette (two actresses who also excel in comedic roles)  as detectives Karen Duvall and Grace Rasmussen. A phone call between Marie and Karen in the final episode underscores how different it could have been if she had had these women as her advocates from the start. The detectives who coerced her into admitting it was a fabrication don’t get to slink away, Marie makes sure her contempt and rage are pointed toward them (as well as the city). No winners exist in a case like this, but when Marie assertively tells detectives Parker (Eric Lange) and Pruitt (Bill Fagerbakke) to "do better," she protects those who will be counting on them in the future.

    In the past, Dever has excelled at comedy, including her brief but memorable role in the Party Down corporate picnic episode as Escapade, the daughter of Megan Mullally’s caterer-waiter Lydia. Booksmart showcased Dever's range as the low-key but high-achieving Amy, whose friendship with Molly (Beanie Feldstein) is put to the test when they're both determine to have a wild final night before graduation. But it's Unbelievable that delivers her strongest turn yet. You can feel the pain of the experience, of what it means to be called a liar and lose everything in your entire being. She gives a voice to the real Marie, and while it could never make up for what she went through, Dever's performance ensures audiences will take notice.

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    Emma Fraser has wanted to write about TV since she first watched My So-Called Life in the mid-90s, finally getting her wish over a decade later. Follow her on Twitter at @frazbelina

    TOPICS: Unbelievable, Netflix, Kaitlyn Dever, Merritt Wever, Toni Collette