Heartbreak High, Netflix, review: showing respect, solidarity and consent

The reboot of the 1990s show offers way more than nostalgia – it's fresh and watchable, with characters who aren't insufferably precocious.

I was ready to dislike Netflix’s eight-episode reboot of fondly remembered Australian teen drama Heartbreak High. Not that I’m nostalgic for the 1990s original. But I do appreciate its local flavour – so I took to calling the reboot ‘Yousephoria’ after watching its generically edgy trailer. Its focus on sexual identities also felt like a retread of the charming UK comedy–drama Sex Education.

Thankfully, Heartbreak High is actually fresh and watchable, with characters who aren’t insufferably precocious. They make teenage mistakes in a way that feels recognisably Australian, even if it reveals how teenagers’ ideas about themselves are now much more globalised and fluid.

Fractured friendship

The heart of the story is the fractured friendship of Amerie (Ayesha Madon) and Harper (Asher Yasbincek). An opening montage shows the lifelong besties daydreaming in a disused stairwell at Hartley High, where they create a mural diagramming all their year level’s sexual gossip. That includes Amerie’s quiet crush on dreamboat Dusty (Josh Heuston) – who looks the most like a Heartbreak High character out of everyone here.

But Harper has ghosted Amerie, right after they attended a summer music festival together. Then Harper shows up on the first day of year 12 with her long blonde hair shaved. Now she hates a bewildered Amerie. You’ll realise quickly what caused the rift; but the emotionally immature Amerie takes ages to figure it out.

That same day, their ‘sex map’ is discovered – breaking up couples and friendships, outing the closeted, and causing great embarrassment for the school principal, Woodsy (a characteristically piquant Rachel House), who now has to field moral-panic phone calls from parents and The Guardian. As sassy nonbinary kid Darren (James Majoos) says: ‘What in Kids Helpline …?’

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Loyally, Amerie takes the fall and becomes an instant social pariah – especially when Woodsy forces everyone mentioned on the mural to take remedial ‘sexual literacy tutorials’ taught by well-meaning English teacher Josephine ‘Jojo’ Obah (Chika Ikogwe). The resentful students, who think they have nothing to learn, promptly nickname the classes ‘Sluts’, and Amerie as ‘Map Bitch’.

Grieving her lost popularity – her other friends Sasha (Gemma Chua-Tran) and Missy (Sherry-Lee Watson) have also dropped her – Amerie is unexpectedly befriended by kind, elfin Quinni (Chloe Hayden), whose Autism is both a social struggle and a bullshit eraser. While Quinni’s bestie Darren initially resents Amerie, they eventually form a tight trio to navigate a year of love, sex and heartbreak.

There’s also a new kid at Hartley, with eyes for Amerie. Basketball star Malakai (Thomas Weatherall) is what romance fans like to call a cinnamon roll – endlessly cheerful and genuine, he seems even nicer next to arrogant jock Spider (Bryn Chapman-Parish) and his sidekick Ant (Brodie Townsend).

Malakai’s Bundjalung heritage isn’t immediately obvious; costume designer Rita Carmody (Preppers, Long Story Short) hints at it with an Aboriginal flag jumper here and Baker Boy T-shirt there. But episode four, written by Meyne Wyatt, more explicitly shows how Malakai’s Aboriginal identity inflects his experiences.

Shifting ideas of authenticity

Michael Jenkins and Ben Gannon spun off the series from the 1993 film they’d respectively directed and produced, about a young teacher who lusts after her 17-year-old student and inexplicably doesn’t go to jail. Hannah Carroll Chapman (The Heights, Home and Away) has overseen what’s less of a reboot than a sequel … or a requel.

Just as the earnestness of Degrassi always felt particularly Canadian, the snarky, low-res tone of Heartbreak High made it feel Australian. Its authenticity didn’t come from the ‘gritty’ multicultural inner-city setting or vérité camerawork. It came from its disrespect for hierarchical authority, and its crude adolescent wit – the famous ‘Rack off!’ is far from the precocious dialogue of Dawson’s Creek or The O.C.

Read: More Than This review: sleek and sunny TV

Watching this new iteration, I felt annoyed by sops to US audiences – there are no school uniforms, and students drive to school together clutching giant iced coffees. And as in Bump, I found it striking that nobody at Hartley High, even the ‘working-class’ characters, worries much about money. (Despite its sunny vibe, More Than This did notice that stuff.)

Dusty gets teased for his awful band’s performative feminism, but not for the indulgence of hosting gigs in his parents’ luxurious home. Even Harper’s tradie dad has installed multiple solar panels on their more modest house.

The exceptions are Darren, who pays board by enbybossing their way into an after-school job at Harry’s Café de Wheels wearing a stolen private-school uniform; and school drug dealer Ca$h (Will McDonald), who lives with his nan (Maggie Dence) because his mum’s in jail, and can’t extricate himself from his petty-crim eshay mates.

The meaning of ‘authenticity’ in teen dramas has shifted since the mid-1990s. Like More Than This, Heartbreak High seeks realism in language, technology and sexual activity. And its cultural references are internationally framed – for instance, a worried Quinni asks Amerie if she plans to ‘unalive’ herself, asking, ‘Is this your 13th reason?’. I felt for Jojo, who’s being forced to teach with outdated SLT materials that the students consider ‘chat’ and ‘cringe’.

Modelling sexual literacy

Ultimately, what I liked most about Heartbreak High were its generic elements: the soapy drama of friendships and relationships. Gently but noticeably, it models respect, solidarity and consent – for instance, when Quinni’s melting down from sensory overload and Darren stops Amerie’s well-meant attempt to comfort Quinni with a hug.

But even these performatively knowing kids have a lot to learn about themselves. As Harper says at one point, ‘I didn’t want to; it just happened’. They hurt each other, accidentally or deliberately: boys who think they’re sensitive can be misogynists; girls who think they’re allies can be patronising. Impulsive actions have lasting consequences.

So it was always lovely to see them communicate what they want and need: when they take off their masks of bravado and are genuinely there for each other. And thanks to the talented writing team, there are plenty of those teachable moments.

Heartbreak High

Creators: Hannah Carroll Chapman, Ben Gannon, Michael Jenkins

Writers: Hannah Carroll Chapman, Ben Gannon, Michael Jenkins, Marieke Hardy, Megan Palinkas, Natesha Somasundaram, Matthew Whittet, Thomas Wilson-White, Meyne Wyatt

Producers: Brian Abel, Sarah Freeman, Michael Jenkins

Executive Producers: Carly Heaton, Jeroen Koopman, Chris Oliver-Taylor, Tarik Traidia

Directors: Gracie Otto, Adam Murfet, Jessie Oldfield, Neil Sharma

Heartbreak High is currently streaming on Netflix

Mel Campbell is a freelance cultural critic and university lecturer who writes on film, TV, literature and media, with particular interests in history, costume, screen adaptations and futurism. Her first book was the nonfiction investigation Out of Shape: Debunking Myths about Fashion and Fit (2013), and she has co-written two romantic comedy novels with Anthony Morris: The Hot Guy (2017) and Nailed It (2019).