It’s January 1995, you’re lying on your living room floor in baggy jeans and checked shirt, fiddling with a plectrum on a leather choker around your neck, Sound Garden’s Superunknown in your Walkman. You’re whining gently because the final episode of My So-Called Life just aired, and you don’t know when it’s going to come back, and you MUST know if Angela is going to pick Jordan or Brian. If that was you, Freevee’s new coming-of-age drama High School is absolutely the show for you.
High School is based on the memoir of indie-pop twins Tegan and Sara. It’s possible your only awareness of Tegan and Sara comes from their contribution to the Lego Movie soundtrack “Everything is Awesome”, but, you don’t need to be a fan of their work, or know anything about them to appreciate the moody, teen drama based on their lives.
As High School begins, Tegan (Railey Gilliland) and Sara (Seazynn Gilliland) are 15, and are facing a new school year at a new school, having recently moved to the Calgary suburbs with their mother Simone, (Cobie Smulders) and step-father Patrick (Kyle Bornheimer). They are also facing a schism in their twin-love, with the opening episode showing the pair coming to blows over their fractured relationship resulting in a black eye for Sara. It’s a clever way to help the audience differentiate the almost-identical twins before we become adjusted to their slight differences in personality, voice and looks.
Here, the new school situation does not provide an opportunity for the twins to turn to each other for friendship and support. It only pushes the pair further apart as they fight to find their own identity outside of Twin 1 and Twin 2. And Tegan and Sara are no Brandon and Brenda from Beverly Hills 90210, trying to fit in with the cool crowd. They are grungy, laid-back aesthetic puts them in with the arty Freaks and Geeks students who cross their paths. Sara is immediately drawn to a gender-non-confirming Natalie (Esther McGregor) and her punky side-kick Ali (Brianne Tju) who speak out about misogynistic casting in her drama class, while Tegan forms a fast bond with panda-eyed, bleached blonde rock-chick Maya and her sexually-ambiguous friend Evan, who intervene to stop to a jock bullying Tegan.
The twins each have their own issues and stories to tell, each episode is broken down into different point-of-views, initially only Sara and Tegan’s but expanding into other characters as the episodes progress. It’s a fantastic way to keep the audience engaged and curious, with mysteries that need explaining – Why has Tegan been pushed out by Sara and their best friend Phoebe (Olivia Rouyre)? Why is Simone sitting in her car in the driveway crying? Often the POVs overlap as we see situations from both sides, allowing a full understanding of the grey scale of who is right and who is wrong in the many crises of the teen’s developing lives.
It also allows us to see the secrets the twins are hiding from each other, and truly explores the secretive nature of so much of adolescence, particularly when one is grappling with their own sexuality. Director and co-showrunner Clea DuVall gets fantastically natural performances from her leads who have never acted before. The show feels incredibly intimate and personal (Tegan and Sara were heavily involved in the show even discovering the twins that would portray them). She also cleverly avoids any ’90s cliches you might expect. The drab, blue-grey tones of much of the show highlight their boredom with suburban life – and the lingering shots of their classmates to show their burgeoning awareness of their attraction to girls – it’s all beautifully handled.
The outsider teens rebelling against their middle-class home life isn’t the only connection High School has to My So-Called Life – the show truly is its spiritual successor, because the girls who identified with Angela in 1995, are now identifying with Simone, the parent, in High School in 2022.
How I Met Your Mother’s Cobie Smulders plays Simone, a mother with an external and internal life of her own. Young enough to be aware that her 15-year-old daughters probably will drink alcohol at a party, but old enough to tell them to call in at 10pm – and immediately return the call to check they are where they say they are. She’s a woman desperately struggling with her own identity, as she juggles being a suburban mom, a student of psychology, and a helper at a Crisis Centre. Smulders has an earthy warmth as the woman laughing at her daughter’s friends calling her the cool, hot mom, whilst feeling like she’s drowning and failing everyone. She is baffled at the way her daughters have drifted apart and struggles to figure out how to help her teens who are fighting and locking themselves in their rooms. I mean what parent wouldn’t identify with reaching a point of exasperation you stop the car and yell at your kids to just get out and walk?
High School is a refreshing take on the teen angst genre that is around in 2022. It is a far cry from the neon, heightened worlds of Sex Education and Euphoria though it covers all the usual tropes – drugs, peer pressure, friendship and sex it does so in a way that feels real (obviously as much as it comes from the real Tegan and Sara’s lives) and heartfelt. The first-time actors who play Tegan and Sara are engaging, giving a great performance in many dialogue-free scenes where they are merely observing the confusing world around them. They carry an “outsider waiting to bloom” aura that fits their characters well, as we know that in time both girls will find not only their sexuality, but also their musical talent which will bring them closer together, and lead them to success.
Music is, of course, central to the show and the soundtrack carries the spirit of 1995 strongly, with melancholic, smashing guitars playing over many scenes, and songs by many of the artists who inspired the musicians to become the performers they are today – a trip to a Green Day concert being a pivotal story to one of the early episodes.
There’s something truly Canadian about the show, with its stripped-back aesthetic and no-frills presentation. It’s reminiscent of the 90s teen drama Ready or Not, but with a much more mature take on those tough teenage cocoon years where you are trying to bid goodbye to the caterpillar, you once were and fly onto your more grown-up and adult life.
Most importantly, High School is an important story for queer youth – particularly girls – to see. In My So-Called Life, sexuality as an issue was kept for the side characters, a side issue that could be touched on and then moved past. High School puts all these issues front and centre. It is the heart of Tegan and Sara’s identity that they are struggling to identify and share with their twin, let alone the world. It’s heart-breaking and heart-warming in equal parts to watch the push and pull as they turn to and from each other with each new teen drama that filters through their lives and bedrooms, and it’s definitely worth your time to go through it with them.
High School is available on Amazon Freevee