‘Heartbreak High’ review: Netflix’s glossy reboot of this Aussie classic is overthought but promising

Despite the Netflix sheen and frustrating plot points that render it too close to ‘Sex Education’, ‘Heartbreak High’ shines when its distinct point of view emerges

When Netflix dropped the trailer for its reboot of ’90s Australian teen drama Heartbreak High last month, the majority of comments could be summed up in two words: Rack off.

Besides the accents, slang and Sydney backdrop, little seemed to differentiate Hartley High’s return from the streamer’s teen hits, specifically, as the comments pointed out, Sex Education and Never Have I Ever. They had a point: the trailer shows awkward-yet-beautiful high schoolers trying to navigate the social ladder while teachers introduce an emergency sex-ed course to deal with a scandal, set in a vibrant world where even the extras dress with main-character flair. It’s a little too familiar.

Thankfully the trailer flattens the show, which by and large meets the then-radical premise of the original – showing a diverse range of Australian teens as they grow up and grapple with issues of class, race, sex and more – and gives it a 2022 update. Unfortunately, three episodes in, the glossy, generic Netflixication already smothers what’s unique about Heartbreak High: dry Australian humour, a talented cast and fresh perspectives.

Heartbreak High Season 1
Josh Heuston in ‘Heartbreak High’. Credit: Elise Lockwood / Netflix

Where the original seven-season show was celebrated and adored internationally for a raw intensity that grounded even the more soap-operatic plot points, the reboot is so far too carefully styled and considered to let anything settle. Its pop-culture references can be overworked (think awkward lines like “what in Kid’s Helpline?” to one character calling another Sia due to to her patronising attitude towards autistic people) and the season arc around a mural that plots out Year 11’s every hook-up, handjob and more feels frustratingly focus-grouped.

That “incest map”, as it’s called throughout, was created by our lead Amerie (Ayesha Madon), who’s eager to finally climb the social ladder upon entering the first day of Year 11 at Hartley High – but the mural swiftly makes her a social pariah, as all those named in it are forced to undertake an extra-curricular sex-ed class.

The unoriginal set-up – complete with a ‘mysterious’ rift with BFFL Harper (Asher Yasbincek) – continually interrupts the flow of more interesting, considered scenes. It’s frustrating, as the teens of Heartbreak High encompass a diversity still rarely seen on Australian TVs: most of the core 11 characters are queer, and most of them are people of colour, including two First Nations characters. So far, the show lets each character breathe without burdening them only with identity plots.

Part of that can be attributed to creator Hannah Carroll Chapman’s (The Heights) openness. The three leads (Madon, fellow Fangirls cast member James Majoos, TikTok star and autism advocate Chloé Hayden) were cast before a script was written, and had their roles formulated around them. This particularly shows with Hayden’s character Quinni, who is also autistic. In the pilot, Quinni initially recalls the manic pixie dream girls of Garden State or Skins, but a lived-in complexity to the character unfolds without over-explanation.

Heartbreak High Season 1
Will McDonald in ‘Heartbreak High’. Credit: Lisa Tomasetti / Netflix

Other uncommon Australian stories feature. Home & Away graduate Will McDonald is a highlight as Ca$H, an eshay drug dealer who, despite the clichés of a kid falling into the wrong crowd, provides some of the more grounded scenes in the show. Watching these moments, Heartbreak High feels as if it could be as zeitgeisty as the original – and could kickstart as many careers.

Unfortunately, the formulaic “incest map” plot sticks out awkwardly, as if it was a plot salvaged from Sex Education’s cutting floor, as though Netflix didn’t have enough confidence in the show’s ability to gain traction on its own merits and meet Australian teens where they are. But perhaps when its beautiful cast and gimmicky hook have drawn audiences in, season two will be able to hone in on its natural charm. For now, there’s enough of it shining through to make a binge worthwhile.

Heartbreak High streams on Netflix September 14.

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