High School – BFI London Film Festival 2022

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Writer:s Clea DuVall and Laura Kittrell

Director: Clea DuVall

The high school move may have had its heyday in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but the coming-of-age meets finding-your-tribe tropes are finding twenty-first century resonance in the larger television serial format. Following Netflix’s defining hit Sex Education, Amazon Freeve’s new eight-parter takes us back to the American high school with its 1990s-set show, the first three episodes of which are screening at the BFI London Film Festival 2022.

Teenage twins Tegan and Sara move to the a new school after the summer but with “Twin 2” getting close to best friend and secret lover Phoebe, there is a noticeable chill between the sisters navigating the cool kids and the bullies, parties, fall outs, heartbreak and family drama. Soon, Tegan begins to resent being Sara’s minder, especially when she meets a new friend.

Written by Clea DuVall and Laura Kittrell, High School is both a homage to a beloved genre but also an attempt to move the conversation along by taking a key LGBTQIA+ angle. Both sisters have relationships with women and although not officially ‘out’, DuVall and Kittrell chart the same world-ending sense of drama as tentative romances begin and catastrophically end. This sensitivity runs through High School, creating comfort and familiarity with its dramatic setting and the tropes the audience wants to see but pushing the boundaries of the genre.

Visually, it is Episode One that capitalises most on this scene setting with a design that nods to the high school we recognise from the movies – that large brick frontage, yellow buses, locker-filled corridors and a capacious gym used for other purposes. Little action takes place in the building beyond that in these early episodes, so the title becomes a catalyst for change rather than the primary centre of the drama.

DuVall and Kittrell have though, created a multi-perspective female narrative seeing the same events from a different character perspective. It is more interesting than just cutting between Tegan and Sara in each 25-miniute episode and while they are the focus, there is an opening-up of the story after that from mum Simone and girlfriend Phoebe’s point of view which adds novelty as well as complexity in the way that events and audience understanding unfolds.

Railey Gilliland as Tegan and Seazynn Gilliland as Sara have a great 90s grunge aesthetic but establish quite different personalities as they approach their new school with different degrees of trepidation with a changed dynamic between them. Mum Simone, played by Cobie Smulders is the most developed secondary character with a subplot that looks like it will take the drama to some interesting places in the remaining episodes, particularly as her attention is divided between her own aspirations and supporting her daughters.

On the basis of the first three episodes, it isn’t clear what High School’s endpoint or final message might be across the remaining 5 episodes, but based on Tegan and Sara Quin’s memoir, there is an honesty here and a different take on the high school genre that will keep viewers hooked.

High School is screening at the BFI London Film Festival 2022.

The Reviews Hub Score:

Boundary pushing

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The Reviews Hub Film Team is under the editorship of Maryam Philpott.

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