REVIEW: Delightfully Vibrant With Irresistible Acting, ‘The Lying Life of Adults’ (2023) Beautifully Explores Adolescence in 1990s Naples


“Even though it briefly slips, ‘The Lying Life of Adults’ sticks its landing” 

Besides exploring various relationship dynamics, The Lying Life of Adults introduces viewers to an aimless teenager in 1990s Naples. Between everyday indiscretions and mishaps, the Italian coming-of-age drama series — based on Elena Ferrante’s 2019 novel of the same name — weaves adolescent struggles together with adult challenges to emphasise how everything one might have thought about the world does not always align with reality.

Giovanna (Giordana Marengo), the tomboyish teenage daughter of progressive, upper-middle-class intellectuals Andrea (Alessandro Preziosi) and Nella (Pina Turco), had an upbringing consisting of “books and critical thinking.” Yet, when viewers meet Giovanna, she is adrift and inexperienced, stuck living an unsatisfactory life. When her grades begin to suffer, Giovanna’s father determinedly identifies that the problem must be that his daughter is starting to resemble his estranged sister, Vittoria (Valeria Golino). This conversation, overheard by Giovanna, acts as the catalyst for the story, as it sends Giovanna into a search for the aunt that has been mysteriously absent from her life.

Giovanna and Andrea standing in their living room together. In the background the viewer can see paintings hanging on the walls, a pool table, and modern lamps and chairs. Giovanna is standing, leaning against the pool table, with her arms crossed over her body. She is looking at her father, seen in profile, whilst he is talking to her.
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Since Vittoria is seen as the origin of the family’s fallout, the idea of Giovanna spending time with her carries the potential to strain the relationship with her parents, particularly her father. Consequently, when Giovanna realises that her aunt is nothing as described, conflicts promptly arise. However, as young people are rarely faithful interpreters of what is happening around them, is Giovanna seeing things as they truly are?

Caught between childlike naivety and the burgeoning awareness of adulthood’s frailty, Giovanna’s attempts at self-discovery are painfully familiar and universal, especially when she tries on various identities as a means to figure out her own. Whether attending a Communist Party fair, discussing religious beliefs, or trying to figure out how to use eyeshadow, Giovanna is in search of something — but she is not sure what that something is.

Vittoria makes Giovanna come to life, sparking something within her Giovanna did not know how to reach herself. Vittoria smokes like a chimney and is foul-mouthed and short-tempered; yet, she is also generous, loving and passionate. Giovanna is mesmerised, repulsed, and then mesmerised again by the whirlwind that is her aunt. Vittoria is everything her parents are not, so naturally, she is thrilling to her. From their first embrace on Vittoria’s balcony, with Edith Piaf playing in the background, it is cemented that their relationship will ultimately be what seduces viewers.

Giovanna and Vittoria in a close-up, leaning their foreheads against each other and smiling big whilst looking into each other's eyes. They're outside and in the background one can see white, red, yellow, pink, and blue bulbs of colour since the coloured light bulbs are not in focus. There's a warmth to the shot and the reddish light is reflected onto Vittoria and Giovanna's faces.
Image courtesy of Fandango/Netflix

When leaving the comfort of Vomero, Giovanna discovers both a new way of life and another part of Naples. The distance between the two neighbourhoods, and subsequently, between Giovanna and Vittoria, is not only based on physical distance, but the lives they are accustomed to. The airy and well-decorated apartment of Giovanna’s parents is a place of intellectual exchanges; for Vittoria, there is barely any privacy between the sparse apartments. The neighbourhoods of Vomero and the fictional Pianto (real-life Poggioreale) become characters themselves, with meaning even attached to the difference in depiction of neighbours. In the world of Vomero, neighbours are something one is either annoyed by or avoids at all costs. In comparison, in Pianto, neighbours are seen as people who one genuinely cares about, regardless of shared history.

Going for something more abstract to mirror the adolescent energy is understandable, admirable even. Nonetheless, some creative decisions feel somewhat clumsy, ending up feeling misplaced rather than heightening the story. Although the series is at times too eccentric for its own good — the recurring desire to play certain moments backwards along with a repeated narration that quickly outstays its welcome with its echoing effect — its more abstract approach to the source material works for the most part. One of these examples is the decision to have Marengo portray the younger version of Vittoria in a flashback, which further underlines not only their connection, but also how people might not be reliable interpreters of their reality.

Still showing the differences between neighbourhoods in Naples. Giovanna is seen riding with two friends on a vespa. In the background buildings, roads and big apartment complexes are seen. The still is taken from a distance and from above where Giovanna and her friends begin their ride down to the more levelled roads. It puts a perspective on these three young characters and much more there is to discover beyond their own worlds.
Image courtesy of Fandango/Netflix

The Lying Life of Adults features an impressively seasoned debut from Marengo along with an impeccable performance by Golino, and their work is monumental to the series’ triumph. While Vittoria easily could have felt gimmicky or crude, Giovanna could have just as easily felt frustrating. Yet, due to the actors’ approach to the material, the characters come across as heartfelt and nuanced. As the series unravels, the writing deepens, and it is undeniably at its best when their relationship hits its highs and lows.

Adaptations — especially the ones featuring internal journeys — can sometimes struggle when translated to screen. Even though it briefly slips, The Lying Life of Adults sticks its landing. Life is messy, and if there’s one thing the series successfully does, it’s presenting a refreshing story that poignantly mirrors its subject. More than anything, it depicts those first stumbling steps towards personal autonomy beautifully, embracing the idea that no person has all the answers and that life is not neatly packaged with easy conclusions. Instead, the series mirrors the equally frightening and reassuring fact that no one truly ever comes of age — it’s something that continuously happens throughout life. The Lying Life of Adults introduces Giovanna as a torn teenager caught in an equally divided Naples. Six episodes later, she is still far from being someone who has it all figured out, but she’s at least on her way to something much bigger than she was before.

Director: Edoardo De Angelis

Producers: Domenico Procacci, Ivan Fiorini

Cast: Giordana Marengo, Valeria Golino, Alessandro Preziosi, Pina Turco, Raffaella Rea, Biagio Forestieri, Rossella Gamba, Azzurra Mennella

Release Date: Jan 4, 2023

Available on: Netflix