Why Raising Dion should be your next box set
Ivan Radford | On 06, Nov 2019
“It’s you and me,” Nicole (Alisha Wainwright) tells Dion (Ja’Siah Young), in Raising Dion, Netflix’s drama about a mother trying to raise her boy after the death of her husband, Mark (Michael B Jordan). The difference about Dion, though, is that he appears to have supernatural abilities – and the difference about Raising Dion is that it doesn’t make this a series about that.
Based on a short film from comic writer Dennis Liu, the nine-part drama takes things slowly and thoughtfully, gradually introducing the notion of special powers through everyday situations and details. Directors Seith Mann and Rachel Goldberg base set pieces around milk and cereal floating in mid-air or LEGO bricks spinning round in whirlwinds. Even a more overt early instance of teleporting is driven by an instinct to help another child rather than show off. Showrunner Carol Barbee maintains that understated, naturalistic approach throughout the first season, focusing less on the powers themselves and more on what they mean for Dion’s relationship with his mum – and the pressures she faces in trying to raise him.
Nicole has support in the form of Pat (Jason Ritter), Mark’s best friend, and Ritter is excellent at playing a substitute father figure who can’t possibly live up to the absent dad – and, crucially knows it. That underpins his interactions with both Dion and Nicole, and provides a vital counterpoint to the mother-daughter bond that’s at the show’s core. Newcomer Ja’Siah Young is wonderfully charismatic and sincere, able to be innocent, excited and wounded all at once – with great powers, Young reminds us, comes great vulnerability. He’s matched perfectly by Wainwright, who balances grief with a determined protective streak, all too aware that Dion’s age and abilities make him ripe for someone to exploit him.
Together, they tackle a surprisingly diverse mix of issues, from struggling to afford medical insurance to Dion’s racist headteacher – and the parental fear that arises within Nicole at each new obstacle is tackled with affection and solidarity, as they attempt to keep Dion’s gifts a secret.
And yet there’s also warmth and humour as part of their day-to-day reality, particularly thanks to fellow school pupil Esperanza (the excellent Sammy Haney) – “Hi, I’m Dion’s best friend, but he doesn’t know it yet” – who helps to capture the wonder of discovering new strengths. That ability to blend laughs, happiness, sadness and heroics is par for the course in Raising Dion, with every conversation jam-packed with far more nuance than you might expect from the genre – a brilliant subplot sees Dion learn that he shouldn’t use his powers to levitate Esperanza, who uses a wheelchair, without her consent.
The result is a thoughtful show with the darkness and complexity of Chronicle and the heart of Smallville – a family drama first and a superhero fable second. As the title suggests, Raising Dion is a moving and heartfelt exploration of the challenges of growing up without a positive male role model. It’s Nicole and Dion, no matter what, and that makes this fresh spin on comic book conventions something truly super.