Saturday, July 17, 2010

Maggie 2010: School's In

#89. Summer Heights High

You might recognize this as "the Aussie series with the guy who plays three main characters in a school system mockumentary." You'd be right. In eight episodes, director and writer Chris Lilley integrates himself with the children of Summer Heights High as a) narcissistic private-school exchange student Ja'mie King, b) unruly Polynesian breakdancer Jonah Takalua, and c) Mr. G, a drama teacher with wildly unchecked ambitions about turning the school into a centre for the performing arts starring--who else?--Mr. G.

It was the latter persona that brought me to this film: Mr. G is eminently quotable, his King-of-the-molehill mentality outrageous, and the road he takes to achieve his ends, gob-smackingly offensive. (Hint: When a child dies in high school, how many of you think about turning her story into a song-and-dance extravaganza about sex and drugs?) Lilley has everything about this man down pat -- every movement, every self-absorbed offense against the school system, every biting commentary about the absurdity of self-aggrandizing power politics.

Lilley also proves himself perfectly suited to playing a spoiled and vapid brat, using the character of Ja'mie to tease out every backstabbing tendency in the world of high school cliques, and to draw to the fore the universality (between public and private school alike) of kids just being... well, kids. Chris Lilley's body language, his speech patterns, and the story-lines he pursues for this character are pitch perfect. There is no doubt that Lilley can act like a selfish little girl really, really well.

But Lilley's third character is his actual, underplayed masterpiece -- and this is what dawned on me in the course of viewing what in all other respects is a comedy, a mockumentary, a hyperbolic, artificially developed play on the high school drama. All of this -- all the hilarious absurdities and plot-lines therein -- is a vehicle for a few very powerful and not-so-funny truths, of which Jonah's character exemplifies the worst. I've seen this truth before, in The Class. But in Summer Heights High, primed to laugh? Primed to be relaxed and to take everything as a joke? The story of Jonah hits the hardest. Personally, it made me cry. And how often does a comedy do that?

As Jonah, Lilley plays to behavioural perfection a student who reacts to his illiteracy, and with it his embarrassment about not being able to do schoolwork set before him, by acting out. By being a terror to his teachers and a bully to his classmates. He lashes out for attention in every way imaginable, and his teachers and the school counsellor try everything in their power to discipline him, to make them bow to their authority: to control him.

Only one teacher, his ESL teacher, doesn't fixate on these disciplinarian tactics. With a smile and infinite patience, she focuses on the lessons and gently steers Jonah towards them through positive reinforcement. Nonetheless, it's fear of expulsion, for the fourth time in two years, that shifts Jonah's attitude over the course of this series' eight episodes. But is it enough? Is it too late? There are scenes near the end of this series--between the lead up to Ja'mie's end of term formal and Mr. G's musical spectacle--that will devastate you.

Without the blatant comedy of the first two story-lines, this third tale of Summer Heights High wouldn't be possible, as it certainly wouldn't be regarded as a comedy of its own most of the way through. What Lilley accomplishes here is thus intelligent, subtle, and shows infinite respect for comedy as a serious vehicle for stories about the human condition. Summer Heights High is a remarkable work of artifice masking powerful truths. You will laugh. You will enjoy. And your heart may also break, in time.

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