Far From Home is the latest offering from Netflix and Nollywood, and it comes at the end of a year that has seen these two solidify their partnership across genres and media, including thriller series Blood Sisters, Yoruba epic movies Anikulapo, Eleshin Oba and The Griot and finally the teen drama series Far From Home.
The last of these distincts itself in its story, and as it postures as a Nigerian adaptation of a popular foreign TV high school storyline, —lower class boy wanders into prestigious high school and leaves with the most popular girl— it was always going to battle against claims of a lack of originality, no matter how well it is adapted. Its success therefore hinges on being able to properly layer its story in a Nigerian context, and a lot of work has to be done to ensure it doesn’t stray too far from home.
Far From Home follows the story of Ishaya Bello (Michael Oladapo Afolarin), talented artist and multifaceted hustler from a struggling family, who is attracted by a 10,000 dollars prize into applying for a scholarship to Wilmer Academy.
He cheats to get the scholarship, but the cash prize turns out to be a hoax, so he will try his hands at an even more immoral means of getting money, stealing from mob bosses Government (Bucci Franklin) and Rambo (Bolanle Ninalowo). His sister (Toni Ojo) is abducted as collateral after he is caught, and he will have to descend even further to drug dealing, first to settle his score and then to make riches for himself.
In school, he lives a fairly normal schoolboy’s life, chasing dreams of global recognition in art and navigating high school with close friends Frankie and Zina, and love interest Carmen (Elma Mbadiwe) while her current boyfriend, Atlas (Olumide Oworu) assumes an adversarial role.
Michael Afolarin balances these two lives with incredible finesse, up until when they collide spectacularly in the final episode. It is here too, that showrunners begin to lose a handle on their story, as they prove to be considerably less suited to handling a gritty action conclusion as they were to the fun drama that came before, unfortunately a theme too recurrent with Nollywood.
The contrast between Ishaya’s origin and his new life is intended to be the main discourse, but it is not written with enough clarity to properly appreciate the differences between these worlds, even though they are individually displayed well enough. Ishaya’s grass to grace story is enjoyable, even if not very realistic. The use and sale of Molly is portrayed way too lightly, and as the writers never once stopping to consider just how harmful this is, it is perhaps safe to assume it was written in at the last minute to replace Marijuana.
And like all of Ishaya’s sins there are no commensurate consequences, not even when his drug dealing indirectly causes the school to get burned down. That said, a more optimistic view would be to assume this a deliberate choice, to avoid darkening the cheerful demeanour of the series in the high school, especially in its earlier episodes where all of the series’ young adult charm is in display.
Conflict is then left to his home front to provide, and as if to compensate it does this in a double serving, as Ishaya’s family exists to be his bane, and he will have to watch his mother, sister and finally brother turn against him. Here Funke Akindele puts in a characteristic top shelf performance as the Mrs. Bello, though her anger for him and his father can come off as excessive.
His brother, Michael, has a lot more impetus to fuel a feud when it does happen, as he provides Ishaya with a loan to aid his getting into Wilmer, an amount Ishaya is not particularly eager to pay back on time. Rahila, his sister is played by Tomi Ojo with an innocent sweetness, though boxing her in like this conveniently cancels out the need for any depth to her character.
On the high school side of the story, each actor in the school slots into their classic characters from any teen movie, albeit this is excellently handled by the cast. Reggie is the cool guy who happens to know everyone without having to get deeply tied to any, and is played by an understated Natse Jemide who looks physically carved for this role. Frank is the shy best friend, played delightfully by Emeka Nwagbaraocha.
Elma Mbadiwe puts in a great shift as leading girl Carmen, but the real star of this round is Genoveva Umeh’s portrayal of the carefree Zina. Fresh from a role as Timeyin Ademola in Blood Sisters from earlier this year, Genoveva returns with some of that effervescent energy but this time does not need to descend into the unhinged as she did in the last act of that series.
At the criminal end of things Bolanle Ninalowo carries Rambo with all the machismo he requires. His partner is the more originally-named Government, played by Bucci Franklin, who finely conveys his soft spot for Ishaya as well as a refinement to his putative gangster persona, two extra bits of layering that grant his character an edge over his partner’s.
Direction and cinematography are other strong points, and here the hand — and large pockets — of Netflix are most apparent, as no expense is spared in bringing the storyline to life, not even high school props that would have proven difficult to obtain in a Nigerian secondary (not “High”) school.
So we come back to the series’ greatest drawback — authenticity. Try as you can, you never quite shrug off the feeling that you are watching a foreign high school drama being cosplayed by Nigerian actors. Timely employment of Yoruba and pidgin is notable, and even the use of modern Afrobeats music tries to tether the series to home, but they are not helped by head writer Dami Elebe’s insistence on using foreign school tropes that probably could have been sidestepped with more thinking. A prom, cheerleader tryouts, hair dye worn by students are examples of areas that could have easily been written out if the showrunners really cared about making a series the average Nigerian young adult can relate to.
Far From Home attempts to contrast Nigeria’s gulf in class through Ishaya’s two worlds, but it winds up just placing a Nigerian living experience against an unrealistic American-like schooling one. Perhaps an easy fix would have been to age out the characters and place them in a university environment that their actors are much more suited in age to, but that only solves about half the problems. As enjoyable as it is, Netflix’s first Nigerian original teen series doesn’t feel very Nigerian, original or even “teen”, but the lovable charm of its cast help this young adult romance blossom.