High School Review: Tegan & Sara’s Memoir Becomes a Muted but Sweet Coming-of-Age Drama

The post High School Review: Tegan & Sara’s Memoir Becomes a Muted but Sweet Coming-of-Age Drama appeared first on Consequence.

The Pitch: Before they were Tegan and Sara, the beloved indie synth-pop duo behind such hits as “Boyfriend,” “Closer,” and “Everything is Awesome,” they were Tegan and Sara Quin, two angsty sisters navigating teen life in mid-90s Calgary. At 15 years old, the twins’ shared affection for grunge rock and burgeoning passion for songwriting deepened their relatively tight bond. But once they entered a new high school, Tegan (Railey Gilliland) and Sara (Seazynn Gilliland)’s sibling squabbles and personal anxieties just as easily caused the two to drift apart.

Feeling excluded by Sara’s covert romance with their friend Phoebe (Olivia Rouyre), Tegan develops a rapport with fellow alternative punk Maya (Amanda Fix), LSD-dropping classmate Natalie (Esther McGregor), and orange-haired Ali (Brianne Tju). Kindling these intimate new friendships offer the twins a comfortable space to be themselves and a launching pad for some eventual musical inspiration. Even after getting grounded for attending a rave with their new social circle, Tegan and Sara remain undeterred in their ambitions, picking up the guitar and channeling their desires into song form.

As the sisters experience disappointing heartbreaks, experiment with acid, and make creative breakthroughs in Canadian suburbia, their authoritative yet compassionate mother Simone (Cobie Smulders) quietly deals with her own struggles, juggling the demands of parenthood, grad school, a social work job, and a waning relationship with her longtime boyfriend Patrick (Kyle Bornheimer). In widening its focus beyond its central pair, High School becomes more than just a dramatized autobiography; it’s a chronicle of unrequited love, queer yearning, and the exhilaration of self-discovery.

TWinning: When we think of stories based on real-life musicians, oftentimes we point to larger-than-life names like Elvis or Freddie Mercury or Aretha Franklin, but very rarely do lesser-known artists get the biopic treatment. High School, a new series based on Tegan and Sara’s upbringing, demonstrates that not only should there be a lot more of those, but that distilling such a narrative through a simpler, more pared-down lens accomplishes much more than what a super-sized framework can.

Adapted from Tegan and Sara’s 2019 memoir of the same name, High School is one of a few recent biopic dramas that resists self-indulgent mythologizing and maudlin histrionics. With the involvement of co-showrunners Clea DuVall (Happiest Season) and Laura Kittrell (Insecure), High School makes solid use of its source material, depicting the usual highs and lows of adolescence with poignancy, charm, simplicity, and tenderness.

Along with some appealing debut performances from its leads and a fun soundtrack of early ‘90s rock favorites (Slowdive, Spiritualized, The Smashing Pumpkins, Green Day), High School smartly plays with perspective, shading its gentle, grounded, and mature coming-of-age portrait with some added layers of emotional complexity.

High School Review Tegan Sara Freevee
High School Review Tegan Sara Freevee

High School (Freevee)

Half and Half: Each of the show’s eight episodes is broken into two parts, with each section alternating between Tegan and Sara’s points of view; later episodes center on other characters as well. This clever structure is an effective way of juxtaposing the emotional ebb and flow of Tegan and Sara’s respective arcs as well as visually differentiating the completely identical twins — seriously, they look and act exactly alike, same long brown hair and flannel wardrobe and all.

At various points throughout the show, each sister encounters an intense crush, a bout of social loneliness, and a rebellious streak, and the parallels and differences in their experiences make for some compelling dramatic tension. High School carefully builds this tension over the course of its first four episodes, cataloging Tegan and Sara’s mistakes, attractions, and relationships as a window into what made their lyrics and sound feel so universal yet so specific. We even get to hear a sliver of some of their earliest work, the demos of which were re-recorded for their 2019 record Hey, I’m Just Like You.

In expanding High School outside of the twins’ origin story, High School also allows the audience to empathize with their family and friends, whose own internal conflicts inform their actions and dynamics with Tegan and Sara. Most notably, Simone gets a spotlight early in the season, where we witness her grappling with the frustrations and sacrifices of having raised kids at such a young age.

Despite being a warm and understanding parental presence for Tegan and Sara, Simone longs to break away from the life she’s built for herself, despite her love for her girls. A sudden loss at work causes Simone to enforce a stricter grip over Tegan and Sara and to question what she wants from being with Patrick.

Know for her genre versatility in projects ranging from How I Met Your Mother to Impeachment: American Crime Story to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Smulders fits snugly into this role, persuasively playing an attentive yet flawed figure in Tegan and Sara’s lives. Although the emotional whiplash from her subplot is mainly confined to a single episode and isn’t really further explored, Smulders’s nuanced performance remains an engrossing constant throughout the first season.

Within the talented crop of actors, other performers like Fix and Bornheimer also stick out as highlights. As Maya, Fix’s confident personality in protecting Tegan from teasing bullies slowly reveals itself to be a mask for a more vulnerable side. Bornheimer, who’s usually seen playing slimy characters, inhabits the role of a caring stepdad type nicely, encouraging Tegan and Sara’s newfound love for playing music while struggling to revitalize his withering romance with Simone. As a show whose main characters are the biggest initial draw, High School puts rarely-seen attention on its supporting ensemble, and is all the more unique for it.

High School Review Tegan Sara Freevee
High School Review Tegan Sara Freevee

High School (Freevee)

Odd Ones Out: In addition to its strong young cast and affecting narrative, High School benefits from its nostalgic world-building, incorporating warm production design and period detail that doesn’t fetishize the ‘90s too heavily. In particular, the visually comforting interiors of Tegan and Sara’s home and various hangout spots like the Blackfoot Diner provide an inviting glimpse into their memories of growing up.

But perhaps what makes High School stand out most is its casual, lived-in portrayal of queerness. DuVall does an exceptional job conveying Tegan and Sara’s budding gay identities, allowing them to explore their sexuality while still acknowledging the limits to what they can express in a world that still hasn’t caught up with them.

She tackled a similar theme as the director and co-writer of the Hulu holiday rom-com Happiest Season to admirable but much less compelling effect. Here, however, the blissful beauty of queer love and the nagging homophobia and self-suppression that constantly threaten it are executed with grace and sensitivity. There’s even an unexpected scene late in the season between Sara and Patrick that deftly confronts this issue.

In some ways, High School’s emotional and formal restraint is also what keeps the series from being truly great. Cinematographers Carolina Costa and Samy Inayeh effectively enliven the Calgary backdrop with some patient yet evocative imagery, but some of their shots linger on the characters a little too long, which seems to either be due to a lack of camera coverage or spotty editing rather than a deliberate creative choice.

Its heaviest emotional beats, like the loss at Simone’s work and a death in the final episode that isn’t foreshadowed at all, also don’t quite register as hard as they’re likely meant to. The series’ slight, understated approach thankfully avoids heightening every conflict into melodramatic territory, but in certain respects, it could stand to be a little less subtle. That being said, for a story such as this, a delicate hand can sometimes be better than a forceful one.

The Verdict: Part of High School’s allure will be learning more about Tegan and Sara’s background, but most of it comes from how seriously the show takes their teen selves while still treating them lovingly. It’s nice to see the path that led the Canadian sisters on a trajectory toward acclaim and celebrity, but it’s even more stirring to see how that path came together and who the people who helped them pave it are. After all, the good and bad moments that define our most formative years are ultimately what shape us into the people we are today.

Despite its somewhat muted presentation, High School’s nimble, soft rendering of Tegan and Sara’s teenhood entertains as both a coming-of-age tale and a sincerely sweet depiction of two sisters finding a way to connect through the power of music.

Where to Watch: High School Episodes 1-4 will premiere October 14th on Amazon Freevee. Two new episodes will drop each week on Fridays through October 28th.


High School Review: Tegan & Sara’s Memoir Becomes a Muted but Sweet Coming-of-Age Drama
Sam Rosenberg

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