Review: Dunst lights up 'On Becoming a God in Central Florida'

The actress brings grit and depth to Showtime's new series, premiering Sunday

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Kirsten Dunst packs fireworks underneath her frown in "On Becoming a God in Central Florida," Showtime's darkly comic series that casts Dunst as a widow trying to take back her piece of the American dream. 

Dunst is quietly ferocious as Krystal Stubbs, a low-level employee at an Orlando-adjacent water park in 1992 who gets tangled up in a world of pyramid schemes, gator attacks and brainwashing cults.

Kirsten Dunst in "On Becoming a God in Central Florida."

Krystal's husband Travis (Alexander Skarsgård) is a wannabe big-timer who's sinking all their money into Founders American Merchandise, an Amway-like scam that promises its employees luxury and riches, as long as they follow the program.

It's not until Travis meets his untimely demise (sorry, Skarsgård fans, but he doesn't make it out of the first episode) that she finds out how deep into the system he is, and it's on her to dig her way out.

Krystal's world comes crashing down as her house is repossessed and she's forced to sleep in a water park utility closet with her infant baby, Destinee. Backed into a corner, she teams up with Cody (a standout Théodore Pellerin), Travis' mentor at FAM, who's so drunk on the company Kool-Aid that his mouth turns blue.

Krystal learns to use Cody's wide-eyed naivete to her advantage, and links up with him in order to get access to FAM's eccentric billionaire founder, the mustached Obie Garbeau II (Ted Levine), who disseminates his teachings to his underlings via motivational cassette tapes.

"On Becoming a God" uses Florida as a punchline but doesn't have disdain for its characters; one of its strengths is its compassion for those who get caught up in capitalistic ploys that prey on the weak and easily impressionable, who are just trying to get ahead.

The show dives deep into the cult-like teachings of FAM, the language of "uplines" and "downlines" and the "stinker thinkers" who dare question its process, and shows how easy it is to get caught up in its web of promise. 

Series creators Robert Funke and Matt Lutsky — this is their first show — get their period details right on the money, and the soundtrack recalls the dance pop cheese of T'Pau, Paula Abdul and CeCe Peniston. The sun-splashed exteriors of Louisiana, meanwhile, stand in for Florida. 

As "On Becoming a God" mixes humor and human tragedy, Dunst's Krystal emerges as a figure of strength who finds her power when her back is against a wall. Dunst has come a far way since her days as a child actress and her role as a peppy cheerleader in "Bring It On"; in "Melancholia" and TV's "Fargo" she showed how well she wears sadness, and she calls on that again here, weaponizing her down-turned facial expressions and exasperation. 

Krystal gets kicked around but she always gets back up, growing more self-assured each time. Dunst is excellent, her braces-covered smile a symbol of hope against a backdrop of despair. 

"On Becoming a God" gets weirder and more surreal as it goes on, but Dunst is always there to anchor it. She might not be a god — not yet, at least — but when it comes to this series, she's a queen.  

'On Becoming a God in Central Florida'


Rated TV-MA: Language

Premieres 10 p.m. Sunday on Showtime