Twin turmoil makes for excellent teen drama: High School

High School: Key Information

• An adaptation of Tegan and Sara Quinn’s memoir, High School

• Directed by Happiest Season writer/director Clea DuVall

• Railey and Seazynn Gilliland, who found fame on TikTok, play the sisters

• MCU star Cobie Smulders plays the pair’s mother

• Eight half-hour episodes

•First four episodes debut on Amazon Freevee on October 14, then once a week for the remaining four

Almost all teen dramas focus on the more salacious side of high school. They’re bright, glossy, vibrant and often a cruel look into the minds of teenagers. Their creators are able to use the recklessness and violence of adolescence to make wild decisions seem entirely plausible, making for great entertainment in the process. 

Whether it’s current favorite, Do Revenge, which riffs on Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train in a story where two high-schoolers plot to destroy those who have wronged them, or classics such as She’s All That or Mean Girls, everything is bold and displayed in loud technicolor. 

All of which makes High School, Amazon’s new adaptation of indie pop duo (and identical twins) Tegan and Sara’s memoir for its Freevee offering, all the more unique, because it defies every one of those conventions. 

Everything is not awesome…

For the uninitiated, Tegan and Sara Quinn are identical twins from Calgary, Canada who formed a musical duo in 1998. They’ve sold more than a million records in their home country, and over the course of their career have explored just about every musical style, beginning as bratty proto-punks, working through a folky then electronic phase, before arriving at full-on pop for their smash hit Everything Is Awesome from the The Lego Movie soundtrack. 

The ice has yet to thaw between the twins… (Image credit: Amazon Freevee)

Set in the 1990s, this drama – and their memoir – doesn’t explore that journey, but begins and ends in their time at high school. Specifically, it focuses on the moment the pair suddenly stopped talking to each other. Up until that point, the twins had been super-close, to the point where they’d become hysterical if they were forced into separate classes in elementary school.

Convinced that this is merely the usual ups and downs of being an adolescent, and the fact they have their own personal crises to deal with, the parents largely leave the twins to figure it out by themselves. This leads to a lot of tears, torment, and, eventually, the throwing of a punch.

The impasse looks destined to be indefinite – until one of the sisters picks up a guitar, and, suddenly, everything changes.

Seeing double…

Showrunner Clea DuVall, who made waves with 2020 festive comedy with a twist, Happiest Season, remains faithful to the twins’ source material. However, with High School, she finds a cute angle to keep the narrative flowing. Every half-hour installment of the show is split in two, with each twin the focus for half. On occasion the format feels a little focused, but on the whole it’s played skillfully and you never feel like you’re watching the same action twice. 

The real find here are Railey and Seazynn Gilliland. The pair have almost 400,000 TikTok followers through the videos they make together, and are superb in their roles as the twin sisters. In fact, on looking at the many pictures of the Quinn twins in the memoir itself, the Gillilands are absolute dead ringers for the teenagers. Considering their acting experience has largely been limited to bite-sized viral videos, it’s nothing short of a triumph. 

Kyle Bornheimer and Cobie Smulders try to parent  (Image credit: Amazon Freevee)

Also on great form is Cobie Smulders, the actress best known for playing Maria Hill in various Marvel Cinematic Universe offerings and her long-running role as Robin Scherbatsky on How I Met Your Mother. She plays the twins’ mother, Simone, a social worker with a demanding range of clients and a relationship with the pair’s step-father that’s slowly breaking down; the last thing she needs is a forever war waging between her daughters, and it pushes her to the absolute limit.

Fell on black days

DuVall’s design choices are as bleak as the feeling between the twins for most of the show. Calgary in the mid-1990s is a washed-out grey color; a desolate landscape that’s reflected in the drama’s many scenes. The attention to detail is incredible, with the twins presented mostly in denim and flannel. 

The soundtrack is full of classics from the period, including a gorgeous cover of The Smashing Pumpkins’ Today, which the twins have recorded for the show. 

The script takes its time, letting the twins’ each have their moment. And while it does give the drama a ponderous feeling, it can drag at times – but those are relative rarities across the eight episodes. 

Our verdict

If this review is your first time of hearing about Tegan and Sara, that needn’t put you off in the slightest. This is a tender, elegant, grown-up drama about the torment and thrills of high school. Part character study, part nostalgia trip and all big-hearted drama. Highly recommended. 

The first four episodes of High School debut on Amazon Freevee on October 14,  with new episodes available every Friday following that. 

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