“High School” Review: Tender, Indie Look at ‘90s Teens Tegan and Sara

From left: Railey Gilliland as Tegan and Seazynn Gilliland as Sara in High School. Photo Courtesy: Michelle Faye/Amazon Freevee

Rating: 8/10

Tegan and Sara, the Canadian indie-pop duo behind hits like “Back in Your Head,” weren’t one of the bands on my iPod during high school. Looking back, I wish their grunge-inspired, often-angsty songs had been on my go-to playlist, sandwiched between Nine Inch Nails and Kate Bush. That’s partly why Tegan and Sara’s High School memoir resonated so much. 

The twin sisters co-wrote the dual point-of-view memoir alongside their 2019 album Hey, I’m Just Like You — an album that features songs Tegan and Sara Quin penned during their teenage years and, decades later, revisited. The tracks are infused with the raw emotions only teen songwriters could conjure up, but they’re also reframed by older, more assured versions of the artists. 

From left: Tegan and Sara Quin, executive producers on High School, in a promotional photo for the series. Photo Courtesy: Michelle Faye/Amazon Freevee

The same goes for the memoir. Reading it, I felt like I was returning to school in the ‘90s with old friends, and that we were untangling our own singular — yet, somehow, related — knots. Now, Tegan and Sara are executive producers on High School, an adaptation for their memoir that debuts on Amazon’s Freevee platform (formerly IMDbTV) with an eight-episode first season on October 14, 2022. 

Co-written by co-showrunners Clea DuVall (Happiest Season; Girl, Interrupted) and Laura Kittrell (Insecure), High School stars newcomers Railey and Seazynn Gilliland as the twins and Cobie Smulders (Friends From College) as Simone, the sisters’ mom.

Tegan and Sara, High School Memoir On Screen

From left: Railey and Seazynn Gilliland star in High School. Photo Courtesy: Michelle Faye/Amazon Freevee

It would be too easy to call High School, the memoir, lyrical. It is, after all, written by artists who’ve been making music since their teens and who are about to release a tenth studio album, Crybaby, later this month. But it’s precise and poetic — both of its authors are aware of how fruitful the economy of words can be, especially when it comes to tapping into raw, all-consuming feelings in a not-trite way.

Rivered with song lyrics — even better, listen to the sisters read the audiobook version — and full of candid photographs of the twins, the memoir is like a time capsule. A lot of people write about their young adulthood, but few coming-of-age memoirs actually feel like YA proper. It’s hard not to put a lot of retrospective narration into books like this; somehow, Tegan and Sara, who trade off chapters told from their singular points of view, tap into an authenticity that feels as close to their teenage selves as possible. 

For us, the book might be the time capsule; for them, the act of writing it was unearthing that trove, all of its good and bad. 

And maybe that’s why High School, the show, works so well. Instead of 20-something actors — a la a series on The CW — the Freevee show is helmed by Railey and Seazynn Gilliland, teen TikTok personalities whom Tegan stumbled upon while on the social media platform. Bummed to learn the twins weren’t actors, Tegan still showed the Gillilands’ videos to her sister. “You can’t teach charisma,” Sara reportedly said, agreeing with Tegan’s feeling that, somehow, these were the people meant to play their onscreen selves. 

From left: Esther McGregor, Seazynn Gilliland, Brianne Tju and Railey Gilliland in High School. Photo Courtesy: Michelle Faye/Amazon Freevee

Part of the Quin twins’ success is both their on-stage chemistry — seriously, the between-song anecdotes and banter are top-notch — as well as their push and pull. First-timers Railey, who plays Tegan, and Seazynn, who plays Sara, capture all of that in a way that feels natural. Casting unknowns isn’t something that happens all the time, with studios preferring big-name draws. But fans know the artists so well; the casting of the real-life Gilliland twins — thanks to what they bring to the table and because we aren’t bringing any knowledge of their past acting roles to the table — helps make High School transportive. 

But the casting isn’t the only behind-the-scenes choice that lends to the series’ authenticity. It’s filmed on location in Calgary — the city in Alberta, Canada, that the Quins lived in during high school. The ‘90s period details help make the world of High School feel lived-in. Tegan has a Kurt Cobain poster on her wall, but the nod to grunge doesn’t feel gimmicky — it’s true to the character, not just a means of telegraphing the setting. 

It’s also great to see Cobie Smulders out of her Maria Hill/Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) uniform. Like the source material, the show toggles between the twins’ points of view. Unlike the source material, though, the episodes of the series are also punctuated by other points of view, like Smulders’ Simone, the twins’ mom. Smulders emanates a warmth here, but she also gives Simone an edge — she knows better than to tell her daughters they can’t go to a house party, but she will pick them up by midnight. When her teen kids meet Simone with salty attitudes or snide remarks, she doesn’t miss a step, giving them some snark of her own. 

From left: Kyle Bornheimer and Cobie Smulders in High School. Photo Courtesy: Michelle Faye/Amazon Freevee

Most of all, it’s great to see a fully fleshed out parent in a young-adult series. We don’t get that very often; parents are obstacles or just part of the logistics, but they’re rarely treated as people. Maybe that’s just part of being a kid — you don’t think much about your parents’ inner lives because your own consumes you — but it’s refreshing to see a more nuanced approach here. 

Much like Clea DuVall’s The Intervention, High School has a definitively indie feel. And that’s what makes it stand out. Unlike the other sleek-yet-gritty YA shows that populate our screens so often these days, this one takes its grunge influences seriously, translating them to an aesthetic and an approach.

While High School is, technically, an origin story for Tegan and Sara, it’s also so much more. When the show begins, the twins are at odds; Sara has grown closer to a mutual friend — the two are discovering their queerness together — and, in doing so, pushed Tegan away. The closer Tegan clings to what they once had as kids, the more Sara pushes her away. 

Tegan and Sara perform during the Meadows Music and Arts Festival at Citi Field on September 15, 2017, in New York City. Photo Courtesy: Noam Galai/Getty Images. Cover art for the latest Tegan and Sara album, Crybaby, which comes out on October 21, 2022, courtesy of the musicians

Although the two have a mutual love of listening to music, they don’t have a real affinity for their mandated piano lessons. Playing music isn’t really on their radar. But when they find a guitar, that changes. Music isn’t only something that helps them find themselves, but it’s what helps them rediscover their sisterhood, too. 

Even more than being a show about artists finding their voices, High School gives voice to stories that haven’t been shared all that widely — stories that are significantly rooted in lived experiences.