I'm A Virgo Review: Boots Riley Delivers Another Surrealist, Anti-Capitalist Rollercoaster Ride [SXSW 2023]

When musician-artist-activist Boots Riley premiered his directorial debut "Sorry to Bother You" at 2018's Sundance Film Festival, it was less of a premiere and more of an unleashing. Even a few years later, very few films have been able to live up to its bizarre twists and unique visual style. It was also staunchly progressive and even socialist in its politics, making the fact that it got released in major theater chains that much more remarkable. However, a question almost immediately entered everyone's minds ā€” how in the world could "Sorry to Bother You" be topped?

The answer is actually pretty simple. You take the money that a major conglomerate streaming service gladly offers you, and you run with it. "I'm a Virgo," which premiered its first four episodes at SXSW ahead of its undated summer premiere, is what you get. Cootie (Jharrel Jerome) is an unusual kid, and not just because he's been homeschooled and hidden away all his life. He's nineteen years old and thirteen feet tall in a world that's been extremely cruel to giants like him. Even worse is that he lives in a version of Oakland overseen by the superheroic vigilante inappropriately named The Hero (Walton Goggins).

After accidentally being discovered by a group of revolutionary teenagers, Cootie navigates first love, first jobs, and an ultra-capitalist society seemingly hell-bent on oppressing everyone in its path. Thankfully, "I'm a Virgo" feels the exact opposite, so far serving as a look into what television could be under better creative circumstances.

Heart, head, hands, feet

Jerome had already proven himself to be a force to be reckoned with in his Emmy-winning role in the Netflix limited series "When They See Us," and he solidifies that with "I'm a Virgo." He embodies the awkward, naive attitude of someone kept away from society for as long as he has. Jerome's presence, however, elevates Cootie from a one-dimensional fish out of water to a relatable and charming coming-of-age figure. You cringe, laugh, and sympathize with the kid as he tries to find his place in the world. Even the tiniest details, from his stitched-together clothes to the "tiny" objects he keeps in his makeshift house, help to flesh Cootie out into a character worth adoring.

The same can be said for the rest of the show's cast. Cootie's foster parents Martisse (Mike Epps) and Lafrancine (Carmen Ejogo) are also set up to be complicated figures, hiding at least a couple of major secrets from both him and the audience. Epps and his near-perfect sense of comedic timing is a particular highlight, as is the currently-simmering demeanor of the aforementioned Goggins ā€” while he likely will showcase a bit of his signature craze as the series progresses, "I'm a Virgo" smartly takes advantage of how calmly chilling he can be.

The real breakouts of the show, however, are Cootie's first real friends: Felix (Brett Gray), Jones (Kara Young), and Scat (Allius Barnes). All three bring such a magnetic and realistic energy to the otherwise bizarre world, and they and Jerome have such great chemistry that you will want nothing bad to happen to them. Unfortunately, that just isn't how the cookie crumbles in this version of Oakland.

And Virgos love adventure

Much like "Sorry to Bother You," "I'm a Virgo" is quite stunning from an aesthetic and technical perspective. When recently talking to Complex about the show, Riley revealed that most of the show's perspective-defying shots were done practically using miniatures and puppets, and that was absolutely the best call. There isn't a CGI shine to the effects used to bring Cootie into the real world, making his presence feel so much more real.

This balance between the real and the surreal is also displayed in the show's larger world. For instance, a demented cartoon series called "Parking Tickets" pops up a few times throughout, complete with a familiar-sounding child sidekick. There are a few other very unexpected cameos that will probably get shocks and laughs from viewers.

Of course, there is a certain elephant in the room when it comes to "I'm a Virgo," and it's its platform. The screened episodes lean into anti-capitalist and socialist themes, with one character proclaiming themselves a communist and giving a speech on the crisis theory. This just makes its promotion on Prime Video, which is owned and operated by shopping conglomerate Amazon, that much stranger. Some viewers likely won't be able to separate this fact from the viewing experience, but at least they gave Riley carte-blanche to do whatever he wants.

While the entire season has yet to be screened, what we saw at SXSW proves that "I'm a Virgo" is one of the streaming era's most interesting and offbeat projects. Riley's unique visual style and the dynamic performances from its eclectic cast make it unlike anything you'll watch this year. Here's to hoping nobody gets turned into a horse in this one.