TV, 2022, 4 stars
Creators: Clea Duvall, Tegan and Sara Quin
First Run: 2023 (1 Season)
In a world that’s rather filled with high-octane TV shows (both queer and not), I was pleasantly surprised to find a queer story that is quiet, considered, and brimming with old school storytelling. At first I found myself drawn to High School by nostalgia and fandom, but I stayed and binged due to the relatability of these girls and their extraordinary, and yet completely ordinary, story.
High School is an adaptation of the autobiographical book by musical duo Tegan and Sara Quin, stalwarts of the queer music scene, which documents their teenage years in the late nineties grunge and rave scene, and the beginnings of their successful music career. On a personal note, it’s fascinating to see the memoir of two women who were so indelibly part of my own inner bildungsroman. I was a teenager of the nineties myself, and so much of their joy, heartache, and rebellion struck chords with me on a visceral level.
I related particularly to how stifled and isolated everything feels. The girls are in a small Canadian city in the claustrophobic suburbs, they have a twin relationship that often works to suppress their individuality, and they live under the pressure of a strict mother who is trying to maintain some semblance of control while she breaks apart at the seams.
Everything Tegan and Sara do feels like a reach for freedom of some kind. Even some of their low-level rebellious behaviour is a desperate grab for self-determination, both together and as individuals. Sara’s early experiences with her own sexuality are kept secret, even from her own twin, in what can be seen both as a necessary step of protecting herself and her girlfriend Phoebe, but it’s also about hoarding this important relationship as her own.
Showrunner and creator Clea Duvall (Of But I’m a Cheerleader fame, amongst so many other things) is herself no stranger to a queer storyline or two, and she handles this one with the deftness of someone who is herself relating indelibly to the material. It’s so intimate and precious - each detail lovingly crafted. Like all the best coming of age stories, it’s about exploring the feelings the girls are grappling with at such a young age, not really events or labels, but to do that you need to set the scene, and Duvall does this impreccably.
That’s also to say not much actually happens here. Essentially they go to a new high school, make friends, clash with their parents, fight with each other, fall in and out of love, and attempt to negotiate their own feelings towards adolescence. That sounds pretty standard for coming of age dramas, but in amongst it all, the nascent musical superstar twins discover a shared passion of playing and creating music that comes as a surprise to them and everyone around them.
Playing the flannel-wearing duo in their teens falls upon newcomers Railey and Seazynn Gilliland, who are note-perfect in capturing both the era and the angst. Famously, Tegan and Sara discovered the duo on Tiktok, but you wouldn’t guess that High School is literally their first acting credits. They accomplish what is a really intriguing feat - distinguishing the personalities and mannerisms of identical twins so well that we are never confused as to which twin is on the screen, even if they’re not introduced.
The Gilliland twins are surrounded by a truly empathetic supporting cast. Cobie Smulders (How I Met Your Mother) is great as Simone, their emotional mother who had kids way too young and is struggling with how motherhood has derailed her dreams. She’s a strong moral force, but we also see how her vulnerabilities are exploited by the twins who have no sense of the damage their teenage rebellion is inflicting upon her, since their intention is never malicious.
Worth a strong mention is the chaotic energy of Amanda Fix (Orphan Black: Echoes) as Maya, Tegan’s best friend who has an abusive home life that even Tegan has no clue about. When you’re young and feeling isolated, having someone that’s yours can be so important, and Maya ultimately feels betrayed by never truly having Tegan to herself - kind of an occupational hazard of being a twin.
As you’d expect for a biography about rock stars, the soundtrack is incredible, especially if you’re a formerly angst-ridden, grunge fan of the nineties. The episodes are written specifically to emphasise the twins’ relationship with music as being one of the greatest influences in their young lives. Music isn’t just an escape, it’s physically shaping their ways of thinking.
As they negotiate their relationship with music and creativity we get to see this intriguing, lifelong journey they’re on right from its infancy. If you’re a Tegan and Sara fan you’ll also have the fascinating experience of linking their early music to the sounds we know as fans. We watch it grow and develop within them both as individuals and as twins, and it’s about as heartwarming a TV experience as I can imagine.