The superhero genre takes a new, science fiction-heavy twist in Netflix’s “Raising Dion,” out this month for series streaming. The show is about a headstrong kid who develops super powers right before his eighth birthday. Where they came from, why, and just how strong they may be are all questions for his mother Nicole, compellingly played by Alisha Wainwright. But like any mom to a kid with special needs, or special abilities, she finds the reasons are less important than how to deal and grow with them in the present.
Created by Carol Barbee and Dennis Liu, “Raising Dion” is set in Atlanta and follows seven-year-old Dion (Ja’Siah Young), who has had a traumatic year. His father died tragically in an electrical storm, he and his mom moved across town, he started a new school where he’s one of the only black kids in a sea of white faces, and to top it off, he is suddenly able to move things with his mind.
The first few moments of the series were astounding to watch. As mother to a son who has not conformed to anyone’s expectations, goes entirely at his own pace in everything, can be willful to the point of obstinacy, and is often misunderstood, I was moved to the point of tears by Nicole’s revelation of Dion’s abilities.
When a child is different, special, capable in ways that are hard to measure, or harder to comprehend, parents are in an odd place. First off, they are terrified, and Nicole is certainly terrified. There are so many questions about what Dion can do, and how he can levitate things with his mind, but the first question for Nicole is about how the outside world will react.
The most important thing Nicole needs to teach her son is self-control and how to focus. When she talks to Dion about how to direct his focus and be at peace with himself, it reminded me of the same conversations I have with my son about how to sit still in class, block out distractions, and take deep breaths to calm frustration.
‘Raising Dion’ Focuses on Shared Cultural Experiences
It’s no accident of casting or creation that Dion and his mom are black, and it gives the show added resonance in American culture, where black kids are maligned for their skin color, and assumed to be the ones causing trouble. Studies have shown that black youth are more frequently punished with suspensions, detentions, and the like than their white counterparts.
Creating the characters of Dion and his mom with this extra element of danger is powerful. Nicole knew she would have to talk to her son at an early age about society’s unreasonable bias against their race, but adding the dimension of super powers both drives that home and opens their relatability to any parents of special-needs kids.
Dion is a loving, inventive, empathetic child. Raising him on her own has been difficult for Nicole, and she has a small cadre of family and friends she can call on to help. Every ask comes with the heavy burden of her disquiet about both why she can’t manage on her own and why she should have to.
Being a widow was never in her plan. She was going to get back to her professional dance career, and her husband Mark (Michael B. Jordan) was going to be a strong, supportive father and successful scientist. No one expects or anticipates these kinds of turns in life, and people struggle with not being able to steel themselves under increased responsibility.
What Nicole learns is pretty amazing, and watching her go through it, with her grief, her love for her son, and her fears for him, really resonates. She has to accept his increasingly powerful powers, protect him from them and from the world that would squash him, and still guide and mother him.
In her worst moments, between dashing to work, trying to understand if what killed her husband may be out to kill her son, and navigating friendships and relationships, she questions herself. It’s not only understandable, but if she were super mom on top of Dion being super kid, the show would be somewhat insufferable. It’s good to see her weaknesses here and there, and it lets us be more forgiving of our own.
“Raising Dion” is all about shared culture: superhero movies, comics, “Star Wars,” Legos, those things that are common to our collective consciousness. Dion is less a reluctant superhero than Miles Morales in “Into the Spiderverse,” but bringing these two child superheroes into the contemporary canon opens up our idea of what superheroes can be. Their characters tell the story of learning to accept what you are capable of, embracing it, figuring out how to control it, and excelling under your own power.
Dion Embraces Character Development
Any young hero needs a mentor, and Dion gets two. One is his godfather Pat (Jason Ritter), his dad’s best friend who has known Dion since he was born. The other is a woman his dad saved from drowning, although it resulted in him losing his life. Charlotte Tuck (Deirdre Lovejoy) makes a few appearances and, with powers of her own, can teach Dion a thing or two about control. She notes that his inability to control his power is based in fear, but not his own.
“You’re afraid,” she tells him during a lesson in power control. “You’re afraid of scaring your mom. … You have abilities that your mom doesn’t have, and that scares her. … You can’t shrink yourself to make other people feel comfortable.”
When we strive to meet other people’s expectations, we must first know if we agree with those expectations. Dion learns younger than most that he has to set his own goals and not be beholden to what other people want from him. Often, it is because we want to please the person we love that we do what they think is best for us, rather than doing what we know is best for ourselves.
This is one of those rare shows that, while definitely binge-worthy, takes its time and doesn’t threaten your anxiety levels with crazy cliffhangers. It focuses way more on character and intention than snow-blind-driven plot, and is successful because of that.
There are so many more things to explore in this series. Season two hasn’t been announced yet, and “Raising Dion” hasn’t yet been out a month. But this is a show for anyone who likes superhero shows, comics, “Star Wars,” crazy twists, weird science, wacky weather patterns, corporate bad guys, and a mom-kid team you can root for with all your heart.