The second scene in “High School,” before even the title card makes an appearance, sees future Canadian pop star Tegan Quin absently staring at the already-iconic Icelandic pop star Björk. While the swan queen would serve as a sound role model for any artistic-minded youth, Björk’s words barely register with the brooding young woman, sitting in her basement, building resentment toward a sister who’s upstairs monopolizing their once-shared friend, Phoebe (Olivia Rouyre). Soon, in a fight ostensibly started over a loud boombox, Sara (Seazynn Gilliland) gets one heck of a shiner from her frustrated sibling, Tegan (played by Railey Gilliland).
But just as the sudden outburst of violence isn’t a sign of dark and dangerous events to come, Björk’s wisdom isn’t doomed to obscurity — not for viewers, anyway. “I think I’ve been playing music long enough to realize that if I’m having fun, that’s the only right way,” she says. “[I’m] not going to be too worried about people’s preconceptions. It’s like a bonus if they like it, you know?” As simple and pure as that sounds, it’s still a long road between hearing such advice and knowing it; between the anxious questions of adolescence and the experienced vantage point of adulthood; between the Tegan (and Sara) seen here and the Björk glimpsed on a ’90s tube TV.
From co-showrunners Laura Kittrell and Clea DuVall (who also directs), “High School” starts its teenage protagonists on the journey from finding their voice to singing, loud and proud. Along the way, they make sure to include perspectives beyond pop stars, from parents to step-parents, crushes to other kids. And, in no small feat, they have a lot of fun — as most kids (not on “Euphoria”) tend to do.
Based on Tegan and Sara’s 2019 memoir of the same name, “High School” picks up when the twin sisters are just ardent music fans, not musicians yet themselves. Tegan is nervous about joining a new school, making her fight with Sara particularly ill-timed. Without a sister to lean on, the first days are difficult. Many of the students bring friendships with them to the new school year. Classes are actually focused on homework and learning — the only socializing Tegan has time for is being bullied by a pushy bro. But that teasing turns into a blessing in disguise when Maya (Amanda Fix) intervenes; dressed in baggy layers with messy blonde hair and an affinity for Green Day and Nirvana, Maya and Tegan quickly bond over their mutual tastes (and good natures).
These events make up the first 15 minutes of the premiere’s half-hour episode, nestled clearly under a title card that says “Tegan.” (The bruise under Sara’s eye also helps distinguish the identical twins early on, in a savvy, subtle choice by the filmmakers.) The second half belongs to Sara, and we soon learn why she and Phoebe have boxed Tegan out of their friendship trio: Sara and Phoebe like each other. They like like each other, and neither wants to voice their feelings with anyone but each other. But their secret summer romance is already under pressure. Phoebe’s acceptance to a French language immersion school means she and Sara can only hang out sporadically. Before break ends, they worry about drifting apart and exchange reassurances — promises older viewers will immediately recognize as beyond their control.
Watching Tegan and Sara navigate their individual and shared social circles is fulfilling in the same way so many honest coming-of-age stories can be. Their lives carry the typical teen melodrama stemming from confused and crisscrossing emotions, and intensified by the excitement of your first house party, rave, or concert. The series also handles each character’s developing sexuality with clarity and grace. (That the show starts with Tegan and Sara fighting, and thus less eager to share secrets with each other, helps distinguish their individual paths to learning love’s many forms.) Eventually, “High School” may get to their time as musicians, but the title isn’t just a prelude to something bigger or a peek behind the curtain for super-fans; it’s a sound, sweet, tale of sisters, friends, and family. Episodes are typically divided into multiple perspectives, like Tegan and Sara’s complimentary halves of the pilot, but they expand beyond the two future pop stars to include their friends and parents, too.
Cobie Smulders plays Simone, the girls’ mother who works at a crisis hotline while honing her thesis on “child sexual abuse with a focus on incest.” Watchful but friendly, encouraging but quick to curb any bad behavior, Simone is a classic “cool mom” — the kind of parent who’s popular among her friends and her kids’ friends — but that’s not how she sees herself. Tegan and Sara’s dad is largely out of the picture; he lives in town, but he’s only called upon as needed, and most of their care falls to Simone and her long-term boyfriend, Patrick (Kyle Bornheimer). Long ago, they agreed not to get married, but now their relationship has hit an awkward stagnancy, where it feels like something has to change, for better or worse. Simone and Patrick don’t take up nearly the amount of time as their kids, but their arcs help inform “High School’s” larger story, about people of all ages who are still searching, still asking questions, still finding an identity that’s their own, rather than conforming to expectations.
Directed by Duvall, the show’s design mirrors its characters, while offering a quiet rebuke of TV norms. Shadows are everywhere. The Quins’ house is often dark, its colors muted. Sunny days cast a pale light, and nights are pried open by faint, unnatural yellows (from bulbs anyone alive in the ’90s should remember well). Honestly, the first visual comparison point that came to mind was “True Detective” Season 3 — a solemn, gritty drama that cast Mahershala Ali’s haunted, searching lead in similarly shadowed earth tones. But “High School” isn’t trying to make itself out to be more serious than it is, or conform to prestige TV standards; it’s grunge. That’s it. Like the bands that shape its protagonists and fill its blaring soundtrack, “High School” crafts a no-frills reality that matches its characters’ scruffy heroes. Kurt Cobain would be proud. (And not just because Nirvana is overtly worshiped. Green Day and Hole play prominent parts, as well, along with about two dozen other alt rock favorites.)
DuVall also sets up clever framings through the scripts’ dueling perspectives — a shot of Tegan eating lunch in the premiere is an early stand out — but she also trusts her young actors in long, silent takes, and with good reason. In their professional acting debuts, Railey and Seazynn Gilliland are endearing, identifiable leads, especially adept at conveying what’s needed in pensive moments. A young supporting cast fills in naturally around them, and Smulders fits her role perfectly.
“High School” takes its teen heartaches and hang-ups seriously, but it’s also a thoroughly enjoyable series that’s far from just a Tegan and Sara origin story. It’s an antidote to dramas that paint tragic teen portrait after tragic teen portrait. Sometimes, the kids are all right. Sometimes, they’re even kind. Maybe all they need is a little encouragement from Björk, even if her words haven’t sunk in yet.
“High School” premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. The eight-episode first season debuts Friday, October 14 on Amazon Freevee.