Every season of Stranger Things has given us a breakout star among the kid-cast. The first season, it was Millie Bobby Brown. The second season, Joe Keery leveled up Steve Harrington and became everyone’s favorite dad friend. In the third season, the breakout is unquestionably Maya Hawke, who stars as caustic ice cream-slinger, Robin, who is one of the coolest characters to emerge from Hawkins, Indiana. Stranger Things 3 isn’t as even overall as the previous seasons, with its sprawling cast spread across a narrative that ranges from scary to absurd, and Hawke provides not just a fun new character, but a much-needed anchor in the narrative. At first, Robin and post-high school Steve Harrington (Joe Keery), working an ice cream counter at the mall, seem like comic relief. But they quickly become the lynchpin segment of the story that unites that sprawling narrative. Their segment of the story is pretty much a parody of a 1980s spy caper, but it works to bring together the adults and the other kids, previously working through separate storylines. And late in the season, Robin and Steve give an unexpected and perfectly lovely emotional coda to the overall coming-of-age theme in season three.
I don’t think just anyone could pull it off, I think it’s all down to Maya Hawke. She is really quite something. She looks like a perfect amalgamation of her famous parents, Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman, and she sounds eerily like Thurman. But her energy on screen is entirely her own, a combination of earthy and sly that is wildly appealing. Robin is not a quirky dream girl, nor is she a perfect cool girl. She mocks Steve mercilessly and throws shade on his odd friendships with this pack of feral children constantly plaguing their ice cream shop. She can’t stop yanking Steve’s chain, calling him “dingus”—let’s agree to bring that word back—and keeping track of how often he sucks. But when Steve and his pack of children need help, she leaps at the opportunity to pitch in. Sure, it’s more than a little convenient that Robin speaks Russian, but Hawke’s frank excitement is infectious, so we buy it without hesitation.
Stranger Things 3 asks a lot of Robin. We don’t have the same years-long build up with her that we do with Eleven, Steve, and the others. We’re not invested in her journey like we are theirs. And yet, it is on Robin’s shoulders that Stranger Things drops its first open LGBTQ representation (Will Byers may yet get there, but Robin is out first). We have to like Robin immediately, and we have to like her enough to believe in Steve’s crush on her. And then we have to like her for herself, we have to care when she cracks open her sarcastic shell and reveals her biggest vulnerability—that she is gay, in a time and place where acceptance is not a given (not that it is now, but being out in small-town middle America during the AIDS epidemic? Yikes). We have to recognize her bravery in that moment, see her vulnerability, and care enough for her to hope her trust will be rewarded. And we only have six episodes to establish that emotional foundation.
It’s because of Maya Hawke that it all works. Because she can command the screen, and our attention, from the moment she arrives with a dry, mocking “dingus”. Because there is sincere affection underlying her teasing, and because Hawke plays Robin with a mischievous twinkle that is irresistible.
There is a reason everyone is flipping out over Maya Hawke, and it is because she is just terrific right out of the gate, capable and assured without seeming mechanical or over-managed. I must note, though, that Decider’s Meghan O’Keefe was first on the Maya Hawke train, spotting her in last year’s BBC-PBS Little Women miniseries, saying, “Watch out for her to lead a new generation of stars very soon.” Soon is now. Maya Hawke has arrived.
Attached - Maya promoting Stranger Things 3 the other day in New York.