Her performance as an autistic teen grieving the loss of her father doesn’t just mark an important step forward for TV. It’s full of nuance, hilarity, and heartbreak.
“What if I can really change the industry?”
Kayla Cromer wondered this, as she told Teen Vogue in January, while weighing the power of what’s become a breakout role in Freeform’s Everything’s Gonna Be Okay. But the 22-year-old actress, who is on the autism spectrum, didn’t quite leap at the opportunity to play a nuanced, flawed autistic lead TV character — quite the rarity across American TV and film — because she was worried about being typecast. She knew — knows — she could play neurotypical roles, too.
But take the role she did, and audiences for the critically acclaimed hit created by Josh Thomas ought to be grateful. Not only is Cromer’s character groundbreaking, but her performance is revelatory — a disarming mix of sweet, sad, and sharply funny that would deserve awards consideration regardless of its social impact.
Everything’s Gonna Be Okay follows Nicholas (Thomas) as he moves from Australia to the U.S. to care for his two adolescent half-sisters after the death of their father. Cromer plays eldest Matilda, whose life in many ways resembles any high school student’s. She and sister Genevieve (Maeve Press) are, in the early-going of the show, largely defined by their experiences with grief, mourning the loss of their dad and struggling to adjust to the strange new day-to-day rhythms instituted by Nicholas and, to a lesser extent, his boyfriend Alex (Adam Faison). The show introduces itself in its first few installments by observing how this new kind of family unit constructs itself, growing pains and all.
As Matilda, Cromer immediately emerges as a fierce, funny performer. The gaps in social cues between herself and Nicholas, particularly, make for terrific comedy, and the actress mines the depths of her character’s conflicted sadness with impressive range.
But then Everything’s Gonna Be Okay goes to some more surprising places — particularly, in its uncommonly rigorous and empathic treatment of Matilda’s sexuality. Working off loads of research, Thomas and his writers created an arc for the character that challenged on-screen depictions of autistic teens in a sort of bluntly liberating way — and gave Cromer ever more juicy material to work with. (Some light spoilers to follow.)
The multi-episode storyline begins when Matilda loses her virginity to a male schoolmate who takes advantage of her while drunk. The scene is tough to watch, but no less agonizing than the muted fallout: Matilda attempting to bury the trauma and save face, in order to prove her maturity and “normalcy.” Her sister chastises her for putting herself in the situation at all, and challenges her to face it. But in Cromer’s hands, we see the turmoil of a young woman trying desperately to experiment and explore without fear or shame. To see her family come to her rescue, in a way that she doesn’t necessarily welcome, proves quietly heartbreaking.
But Matilda isn’t boxed into any kind of sentimental subplot, either. From here, the show totally throws away the rulebook. One episode depicts an attempted threesome between Matilda and two other autistic characters in the show, both of whom are crushing on her hard. (One is male, the other female.) It’s a marvelous take on teenage sexuality in general, as the trio negotiate boundaries and desires with clarity and excitement. Against the backdrop of Nicholas — again, Matilda’s guardian — all but willing this to happen, it’s also brilliantly awkward. Cromer anchors the scene marvelously, as Matilda asserts what she wants and how.
Indeed Matilda is, at times, a very self-centered character. She is, like any teenager, in a position of figuring out who she is and pursuing that — even at the expense, perhaps, of those in her path. It’s high time a character on the spectrum received this kind of depth. In the season finale, Matilda and the gang travel to New York, as a kind of trial run to see if she can handle life in the Big Apple while attending college at Julliard — to which she was just accepted. Her experience is frustrating, exhilarating, disappointing, and maybe, in the end, a little crushing. But watching Cromer’s face on that subway car, you see a determination that won’t quit. That goes both for this galvanizingly fresh character, and for a performance that reveals new layers by the episode. That’ll be surely true when the recently-ordered season 2 comes around — and until then, it’s your move, Television Academy.