Famed Canadian musical duo, Tegan and Sara Quin, have transformed their memoir “High School” into a show with the same name (available on Prime Video in Canada Oct. 28), starring TikTok sensations Railey and Seazynn Gilliland, Cobie Smulders and directed by But I’m A Cheerleader star Clea DuVall.
Making its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), High School tells the story of Tegan and Sara going to a new high school in the 1990s, and initially, seemingly drifting apart. They are both fiercely attracted to music, while on their own personal journeys of exploring who they are in their adolescence.
Throughout High School, all under the guise of this attractive ‘90s grunge nostalgia, there is this great commitment to telling this story in a way that feels far more authentically raw and complicated, but with a real sense of innocence that we all felt as teens. A time where each day was an opportunity for us to shift and change, and understand ourselves better, all through some growing pains.
“Part of our adolescent experience as queer teens who were not yet officially out was, yes, there were secret relationships, but there was also just chemistry with a lot of our friends,” Sara told Yahoo Canada during TIFF. “When we first came into adulthood, a lot of queer people would say that is a very unusual experience in high school, most people who are queer are sort of, especially in our generation, they kept it under wraps, they were certainly not feeling attracted to friends and having secret make-outs, or getting drunk and making out with a girl and then not talking about it later. We were.”
“I think to be able to capture that on screen is big, and I know we did that with the memoir, but I think it is even more elevated by the show. [Those] unspoken looks between women that don't necessarily have to be romantic, they can just be exciting. ... Like is Sara staring across the drama room at that mysterious girl because she thinks her hair is awesome and she's thinking about chopping it off and dyeing it? Or is she wanting to go out with her? We don't quite know. ... I have not seen that in a queer story before.”
Sara also highlights that this is very much the case in the first episode, where Seazynn, as Sara, is looking at a girl at school and that classmate’s response is, essentially, what are you looking at?
“That would happen to us all the time,” Sara said. “Not in a sexual way, just if you looked at the wrong person, someone would be like, 'don't f-cking look at me.'”
“I like that, that moment happens in the pilot because you get the tension and the danger of observing people, and what becomes so clear throughout the season is Tegan and Sara find a world where they can look and they can observe, and be observed, and it's safe. ... Finding a group of friends where I was allowed to observe and be observed in a safe way was transformative.”
'We want women to be perfect'
Another authentic aspect of High School is that it actually shows these teens learning how to play the guitar and become musicians, and it’s not perfect.
“I wanted to see, what are the ways we're going to see Tegan and Sara struggle with becoming musicians that maybe boys don't have to deal with,” Sara said.
“There were definitely early meetings where it was like, 'can we see a guitar right away? Can they be musicians in the first episode?'” Tegan added. “Clea was just such a bad-ss about it. She was like, no, you have to believe that they learn and you can't do it at the beginning, you have to get to know them first, ... you're going to have to see them struggle and figure it out.”
“I think when you see women playing music on television, it's often made to sound perfect because we want women to be perfect, ... but we see men struggle and suffer, and we’re like, it’s hot to watch them figure it out. ... We were like, let's make this real and have them perform for each other, and be amazed and have them do their thing. That's how people reacted to us. It wasn't perfect, you listen to our recording or you see the video of us in high school and it's the energy we exuded, and a lot of the energy was like, ‘I can do this thing,’ and people would watch it and be like, ‘how are they doing that?’”
The Quin twins both praise Clea DuVall’s ability to really transform their memoir for the screen in an innovative way. While it’s based on their real life, this doesn’t feel like a biopic (even though we’d certainly watch one of those as well), it really does feel like a cool, ‘90s teenage-centric show, which just happens to be based on the lives of these Canadian music sensations.
“We are storytellers but we needed somebody who would actually be able to ... imagine this. What does this look like? What is it missing? What can you keep? What do you fictionalize?” Sara said. “We really needed a strong partner who could take us down that path.”
“The absolutely necessary thing was somebody who would continue to let us in that creative collaborative process because ... it's not just our actual story and our life, and our friends and family, ... the characters are called Tegan and Sara so if it goes sideways, it's kind of associated with something that is also its own. It's our albums, it's our legacy, it's our foundation. So we needed somebody who we could trust, somebody who would be collaborative, and also somebody who had a vision of how to really elevate this.”
'They're actually so intimate with each other'
Railey and Seazynn Gilliland don’t just work as Tegan and Sara Quin because they’re twins. They’re captivating to watch with an awkwardness that takes you back to watching shows like My So-Called Life.
“They're actually so intimate with each other," Sara said. "When we first started filming the music scenes, I remember being like, ‘Wow they’re really looking at each other.' ... They were like looking into each other’s eyes, ... it translated to me that there was trust.”
“Railey and Seazynn are really actually excellent performers, I don't think they like to rehearse, but nobody does," Tegan added. "But the second we got them into the studio it was so clear that they're very, very talented and I really hope there are future seasons because it'll be really interesting to see how they develop and grow.”
While the future of High School is unknown, the first season certainly made us invested in these characters in way where, it would be a shame to not see how Clea DuVall continues this story, as Tegan and Sara get older and evolve both musically and personally.