Lionel Wellington as Tai in South Pacific Picture’s new drama Head High. (Photo: SPP)
Lionel Wellington as Tai in South Pacific Picture’s new drama Head High. (Photo: SPP)

Pop CultureJune 28, 2020

Review: Head High is the best and most complex NZ drama in years

Lionel Wellington as Tai in South Pacific Picture’s new drama Head High. (Photo: SPP)
Lionel Wellington as Tai in South Pacific Picture’s new drama Head High. (Photo: SPP)

Three’s new rugby-themed drama is both original and feels like it could have come from nowhere else, writes Duncan Greive.

Over the past decade, New Zealand’s prestige (read: most well-funded) drama has established a trend of revisiting some of the country’s most celebrated characters and notorious incidents. Dear Murderer, Runaway Millionaires, Resolve, Jonah, Jean – mostly good, some great, all relatively faithful retellings of real events.

In parallel, it’s had a trend of somewhat fantastical premises. The Gulf, Dirty Laundry, The Bad Seed, The Brokenwood Mysteries – which take crimes that are fantastically rare in New Zealand and make them routine. Some are good, some are comically bad, all are set in New Zealand without feeling like New Zealand stories.

Head High takes a different route, being a very New Zealand story which is ripped from the headlines without faithfully recreating what happened within them. It concerns two neighbouring high schools, Southdown and St Isaac’s, one poor and largely brown, the other wealthy, private and largely Pākehā. So close they share a fence, love interests and the occasional fistfight. So far apart that the lived realities of their students essentially encompass the extremes of privilege and its absence within New Zealand.

Southdown has a very good rugby team, as the season opens it has just been promoted to 1A, the top tier of Auckland’s hyper-competitive secondary school rugby competition. St Isaac’s has an outstanding team, one which dominates the competition as of right, and might very plausibly think of its team as among the best high school squads in the world most years. 

To maintain this excellence is no small thing – it requires discipline, elite training and conditioning, essentially running the top teams like they’re professionals. It also requires recruiting players from other schools, competing schools. Like Southdown’s, across the fence. As you can imagine, Southdown feels quite upset when its best talent disappears to the rich school down the road. And yet you can’t blame those recruited, either – their athletic ability, well-directed, might mean a Super Rugby contract and on to the All Blacks, or to lucrative competitions in Europe. The kind of money which transforms lives.

The Southdown team in Head High. (Photo: SPP)

This is the backdrop, a very fertile one to work from – studies in contrasts and the tension between different elements of New Zealand society. It also happens to be real life in Auckland, where St Kentigern’s and Kings are private schools on lush grounds in South Auckland, fielding perennially strong rugby squads which compete against neighbours like Aorere and De La Salle, low-decile competitors whose best players are regularly confronted with that difficult choice about whether to quit their teams to take up scholarships for their well-resourced neighbours.

It’s also a quintessentially New Zealand story, with rich and poor, Māori and Pasifika and Pākehā all living in close proximity, united by some elements and divided by others. This is a marked departure from other recent big budget dramas like Filthy Rich, steeped in cliche and with a setting so portable that despite its cancellation it lives on, adapted for Fox for a forthcoming season in the US.

The South Auckland setting is great – and so is the story. It centres, as all our post-Outrageous Fortune dramas are legally required to, around a family. Miriama McDowell is the show’s heart, playing Renee O’Kane, a cop and mother to two key first XV players and their younger sister, an accomplished high diver. She’s married to Vince (Craig Hall), the Pākehā head coach of Southdown, step dad to the boys, and father to Aria (a brilliant and brooding Te Ao O Hinepehinga Rauna), the youngest of the whānau.

The show opens on a foot chase set to David Dallas’s Runnin’ (the soundtrack is uniformly excellent, with key moments featuring Sid Diamond, Chelsea Jade and Vayne songs). Brothers Mana and Tai (Jayden Daniels and Lionel Wellington) are on the run from some marauding St Isaac’s boys in a white Range Rover, and finally stop and get into it, before the cops arrive – led by Renee.

Honestly you would be forgiven for switching off at this point. It’s a deeply corny opening which plays heavily to the kind of stereotypes New Zealand’s TV has traded in for the last 20 or so years, when it (mostly) stopped demonising people of colour and started making them into one dimensional cyphers – an improvement, sure, but still dehumanising in its own way.

Miriama McDowell and Craig Hall as Renee and Vince O’Kane in Head High (Photo: SPP)

Yet you have to persist, because those first minutes are misleading. The deeper you go, the more complex the characters get. Mana is good-hearted, sure, but also not certain he even wants to play the sport at which he excels, and prone to impulsive behaviour which he can’t decode. In other words, a teenager. So it goes for the whole cast: the pompous private school headmistress (Theresa Healey) is appalled when her players act out, and lets them know; a girl who sleeps with a tormented Mana is both mistreated by him then puts their hookup on Instagram by way of revenge. Both are out of line, they figure it out.

What it does is take a real-life situation and people it with humans that are capable of selfless acts but also flawed, as humans are when we meet them, but often aren’t in the angels-and-demons binary of much New Zealand drama.

It also works because of a visceral, arresting moment toward the end of the first episode which does not signal itself well in advance and is all the more impactful as a result. The tone shifts entirely, and the show’s scope is revealed in a few moments which change lives. In it, Head High finds its feet, and the performances seem to palpably lift in its aftermath, as if everyone involved realises they’re close to something with a far higher ceiling than is typical for most first season NZ screen productions.

While comparisons to Friday Night Lights are inevitable, they really only go so far, and the tensions of the setting are in fact more complex and malleable than those of West Texas. That does not for a moment indicate that Head High will approach the quality of the excellent book/film/show – but that it has the potential to do so is a victory in itself. It’s the first New Zealand drama in some time that feels both original in concept, and not only from here but reflective of this place, in its beauty, horror and complexity. Should the writers and cast hold their nerve this has a real shot at becoming a landmark of modern New Zealand television.

Head High premieres tonight (Sunday, June 28) at 8.30pm on Three.

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