Jun 15, 2023
Holland ditches his superhero cape for dark, gritty psychological dramas
Who doesn’t love the doe-eyed actor that is Tom Holland? I know I sure do, especially because he is the Spider-Man I’ve connected to the most aside from Andrew Garfield. Even then, Holland is still my favorite because of the charm and innocence he brings to the character. Lately, it seems he has taken a liking to Apple TV+ productions, as he’s had two big premieres on the platform in the past two-and-a-half years alone, and you’re gonna want to see him in these gritty roles. Here’s a little bit of info on the film Cherry and his new series The Crowded Room. I highly recommend adding both to your must-watch list immediately.
In March 2021, Holland starred in Apple TV’s epic saga Cherry, which recounts an unnamed narrator’s experience with college, love, war, mental health, drugs, felony crime, and redemption.
The film is based on the 2018 debut novel by author Nico Walker, who served as a medic on more than 250 missions in Iraq. As a result, he came home traumatized and battled Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which subsequently led him down a very dark path that landed him in prison serving an 11-year sentence. While there, he wrote his novel over the course of several years, and days after it published, Marvel filmmakers Joe and Anthony Russo, through their studio AGBO, bought the production rights then signed on to direct and produce the story from a screenplay written by writer/producer/director Jessica Goldberg (The Path). The film serves as a work of autofiction, which is a form of fictionalized autobiography combining two mutually inconsistent narrative forms.
Holland stars as Cherry--the only name we know him as, a disenfranchised young man from Ohio who meets the love of his life in community college, only to risk losing her through a series of very bad decisions resulting from the madness that PTSD tends to create in trauma survivors.
When he tells Emily (Ciara Bravo, of To the Bone) he loves her, she balks in fear and breaks up with him to attend school in Montreal. Cherry is heartbroken and directionless, so he impulsively enlists in the Army. When Emily returns saying she decided not to go to Canada and wants to stay with him, Cherry can’t get out of his two-year service commitment and winds up doing tours in Iraq and Afghanistan as a combat medic. Seeing this experience through the boyish innocence Holland evokes in such a unique way instills empathy and compassion. The combined efforts of his portrayal and the cinematography allow for a realistic first-hand account of everything this young boy, who is forced to become a man in the blink of an eye, sees, hears, thinks, and feels in his own way. And it's in that way the film becomes very relatable in terms of how we face and digest real-life human struggles.
When Cherry returns home, he begins suffering from some horrid PTSD that leads him to a doctor-prescribed Oxycontin dependency, which then turns into a full-blown heroin addiction. When he and Emily reunite, she, too, becomes addicted, and in order to get the money needed to support their rapidly spinning out-of-control habit, Cherry resorts to robbing banks by walking into them and calmly sliding the cashier a one-dollar bill with the words “I HAVE A GUN” written in bold red letters on one side and the words “THIS IS A ROBBERY” written on the other. He enters these banks wearing sometimes just sunglasses and other times a zip-up hoodie or jacket, maybe with a beanie, and he never actually carries a gun; however, that doesn’t mean there are never any casualties. There always are in any type of war, internal or external. Cherry successfully manages to rob 10 banks before getting caught in April 2011 and sentenced to eleven years in federal prison.
This story is heart-wrenching and full of adrenaline, but what captivated me the most was Holland’s performance as he transitioned between child-like innocence and young love to soldier, war veteran, mental health sufferer, drug addict, thief, and federal criminal. He’s a ferociously compact presence throughout the film, which he narrates himself. The most compelling traits of his acting, besides the purity of emotion emanating from his eyes, are his perennially working jaw muscles, which indicate the psychological intensity driving his desperate decisions.
The movie is divided into seven epic chapters that include a powerful prologue and epilogue but really it’s split into two parts: war and postwar. Cherry’s life is one of continuous trauma, continuous stress, continuous disorder, and continuous effects. While I won’t spoil it for you and reveal the ending, I will say it does offer some salvation to the titular character while granting him hope and the promise of a new beginning. Holland superbly portrays the psychological toll that war and trauma can take on a person, as he encapsulates every hint of fear, desperation, confusion, and acceptance so effortlessly, you forget you’re watching an actor on screen.
Cherry is currently streaming on Apple TV+.
As if that wasn’t enough of a psychological exploration for the young actor, now Holland is back in Apple TV’s latest series, a psych-thriller drama series called The Crowded Room, which he not only stars in but also produced. He plays a young man accused of a crime, but the driving question behind this mystery is did he really do it? This adaptation is also loosely based on a true story about a man who was arrested in 1979 for a series of crimes he claims not to have committed. But is that really the truth?
Holland plays Danny Sullivan, an introverted teen living with his doing-her-best mess of a mother (Emmy Rossum, of Shameless) and asshole of a stepfather (Will Chase, of Dopesick), who never misses an opportunity to corner, harass, threaten, and abuse Danny when his mother isn’t around and sometimes even when she is.
At school, Danny has two friends: a jock and a budding magician. He also has a crush on the most popular girl in school, Annabelle (Emma Laird, of Mayor of Kingstown), but she only likes him back when her friends aren’t around. When Danny realizes this, the heartbreak in his eyes is so palpable, we as viewers feel his deflation, embarrassment, and sadness. Still, it doesn’t stop him from engaging with her when she interacts with him, and it certainly doesn’t scare him off when Annabelle’s jerkoff boyfriend threatens him. Danny is willing to risk anything to share a quiet moment with Annabelle, and he pretty much does just that by seeking weed from a dangerous drug dealer to satisfy her urge to smoke a J together. Right off the bat, Danny is presented as a shy, nerdy teen struggling desperately to find his place in a world of cruelty and bullies.
So, what’s the crime?
In the pilot episode, Danny is arrested for a shooting that occurs at Rockefeller Center in New York City. We see him holding the gun but freezing when he sees the face of the man he is supposed to shoot. As a result, Danny’s accomplice Ariana (Sasha Lane, of Loki) grabs the gun and shoots at the intended victim as he scurries away. She winds up shooting several other people in the process, then seemingly disappears into thin air.
The cops catch up to Danny and bring him in for questioning, but they begin to suspect that they can't find his accomplice because maybe he killed her, so they bring in Special Investigator Rya Goodman (Amanda Seyfried, of The Dropout) to interrogate him. What ensues is an unfolding of past and present events through a suspenseful series of carefully deconstructed answers Danny gives to Goodman. It’s here we begin to realize there’s a lot more to him than meets our naked eye, and as the story deepens and exposes more memories, the mystery slowly starts to unravel.
The Crowded Room is inspired by the case of Billy Milligan and the book “The Minds of Billy Milligan” by Daniel Keyes. The non-fiction novel recounts Milligan’s case after he was arrested for a series of rapes across an Ohio university campus. Clearly, screenwriter Jessica Goldman took some creative liberties and changed up some key details, but I won’t reveal any more spoilers beyond what I already have!
In a recent interview with Extra, Holland said he’s taking the next year off from acting following The Crowded Room’s strenuous production.
“It was a tough time, for sure,” he told Extra. “We were exploring certain emotions that I have definitely never experienced before. And then on top of that, being a producer, dealing with the day-to-day problems that come with any film set, just added that extra level of pressure.”
Holland went on to say he loved the learning curve of becoming a producer but juggling two roles on one production while playing a character in a severe mental health state pushed him past his breaking point.
“… Then again, the show did break me. There did come a time where I needed a break and disappeared … for a week. … I’m now taking a year off, and that is a result of how difficult this show was. I feel like our hard work wasn’t in vain. … I was seeing myself in Danny, but in my personal life. I remember having a bit of a meltdown at home,” he said.
He then further commented on mental health.
“Learning about mental health and the power of it, and speaking to psychiatrists about Danny’s and Billy’s struggles, has been something that has been so informative to my own life,” he said, noting he is now able to “recognize triggers” like social media that stress him out.
Apple TV dropped the series June 9 with a three-episode premiere, which, if you missed them, you can read their full recaps here. The fourth episode premieres Friday, June 16 with subsequent episodes airing every Friday through July 28.
So don’t delay: Add Cherry and The Crowded Room to your must-watch list today and experience the star actor like you’ve never seen him before in these two beautifully crafted heavy psychological dramas, currently streaming on Apple TV+.
Keeley Brooks is a big ole film and television nerd who watches way too much content, then blabs about it. Even if it sucks. Email her at email@example.com.