Very Queer New Series “Heartbreak High” Is an Excellent Entry Into the Friendship Breakup Canon

This Heartbreak High review contains some spoilers.

I’ll preface this review of Heartbreak High by saying I’ve never seen the original series, a 90s Australian teen drama that ran for seven seasons. The entire original series is on Netflix, and even though I’ve heard it’s a little more bleak and operatic than its recent reboot, I have full intentions of making this a rainy day activity (spread across many rainy days — there are over 200 episodes).

Netflix’s fun and deceptively complex Heartbreak High remake for the modern decade will no doubt draw comparisons to another Netflix teen drama, Sex Education. It succeeds on a lot of the same fronts, providing an in-depth, nuanced, and varied exploration of teen sexuality in a way that feels revelatory and meaningful rather than gratuitous and flip. But Heartbreak High’s world and characters feel wholly their own, its stories distinct and often surprising. In eight episodes, it does a lot and devises a strikingly original voice and cadence — at times quiet and subtle and at others boisterous and theatrical.

It opens with a sex map. Dubbed the “incest map,” it’s the passion project of longtime best friends Amerie (Ayesha Madon) and Harper (Asher Yasbincek), who have over the course of their entire friendship been obsessed with the hookups and romantic entanglings of their fellow classmates. Obsessed to the point of visually charting said hookups and romantic entanglements, they’ve constructed the “incest map,” an explicit guide to who has done what with who at Hartley High. The map lives on a wall in an abandoned stairwell, their dirty little secret. But of course, someone finds it, and chaos erupts at Hartley, everyone’s sex, secrets, and a decent amount of lies swirling around. Amerie takes the fall, now known as “map bitch” and seen as a mutinous enemy for outing everyone’s sex lives (and, in some cases, actually outing queer students) as well as a supreme loser for including in the map a line between her and dreamboat Dusty — not because they’ve actually hooked up but because she thinks it’s destined for them to. Amerie finds herself an outcast for a boatful of reasons.

But Amerie doesn’t care as much about her map bitch epithet as she does about the fact that her best friend isn’t speaking to her.

By the time the map is exposed, Harper has already drifted away from Amerie. They attended a music festival about a week before, and after it, Harper “ghosted” according to Amerie. Harper shows up at school with a shaved head and an aura that screams SOMETHING IS VERY WRONG. Amerie attempts to ask what’s going on but is promptly shut out. When she pushes, it turns into an actual physical fight, Harper beating the shit out of her. Heartbreak High truly does not pull any punches when it comes to depicting friendship fights and breakups.

From there, Amerie grasps at a reconstructed social life, struggling to move through the world without a now extremely distant Harper. Amerie starts hanging out with another pair of best friends, the autistic and queer Quinni (played by austistic actor and disability rights advocate Chloé Hayden) and the mixed and nonbinary Darren (played by nonbinary actor James Majoos). Heartbreak High’s world opens up, truly operating as an ensemble show that gives specificity and overlapping storylines to its characters. New student Malakai (Thomas Weatherall), a charming Bundjalung basketball player, starts flirting with Amerie, who eventually finds herself in a twisted love trapezoid with him, Harper, and Dusty.

The dating and sex lives of Heartbreak High’s characters become rich storytelling ground for us to learn more about them and for them to learn more about themselves. Heartbreak High accomplishes in-depth and complex interiority for each of its characters without over-relying on devices like voiceover narration (which it only uses briefly at the very beginning) and instead letting the performances really speak for themselves.

And the queer storytelling throughout the eight episodes is great. An entire episode is set at Mardi Gras — Sydney’s massive LGBTQ+ Pride celebration, with just about every character joining in on the festivities. There are no basic coming out stories but instead stories about people learning about new layers of their sexuality and also queer storylines that go way beyond just coming out. Darren has an on-and-off flirtation with Ca$h (Will McDonald), a quiet and shy eshay (yes, I did look up some Australian slang while marathoning the series) who lives with his nan and is often getting up to trouble. Quinni starts dating her longtime crush Sasha (Gemma Chua-Tran), and despite Sasha’s loud passion for social justice issues and feminism, she’s often ableist toward Quinni, who no is not defined by her autism, but yes, it of course touches so many parts of her life and experiences. Heartbreak High is keenly aware of those nuances, and Quinni really does feel like a groundbreaking character.

The mess and contradictions in Heartbreak High feel deeply, authentically like real-world high school mess. A little more over-the-top than Sex Education and significantly more grounded than a show like Euphoria, Heartbreak High finds its own tone and balance, often ocscilating between sweet and acidic, humorous and gutting.

There’s a moment, for example, in the eight-episode season where we leave a very upsetting sequence of scenes depicting police brutality — an incident that has immediate and lasting ripple effects for the rest of the season — and transition rather disorientingly into a dreamy, Euphoria-esque threesome scene between Harper, Dusty, and Malakai. I found it tonally disjointed and a little silly at first, to be honest. A cheap trick to move away from something serious and violent into a more fantasy space. Until I realized that was entirely the point. Missy, another character who is also queer and Aboriginal, calls Harper out for hooking up with Malakai immediately after he experienced something traumatic. But Heartbreak High not only holds a sense of self-awareness about this whole sequence but also empathy for all characters involved. Harper very clearly has a messed-up relationship with sex and intimacy and genuinely thought she was helping Malakai out. Malakai seemed dissociated in the moment, eager to disappear in the fantasy presented to viewers.

In addition to ableism and dating while autistic, Heartbreak High explores asexuality, homophobia, possible bisexual awakenings, racism, police brutality toward Aboriginal peoples (also, worth noting this is one of the more anti-cop teen shows I’ve seen in a minute), class, addiction, and many more issues of power, identity, and systems. But there’s never an after-school special feel to these stories, rather Heartbreak High organically and meaningfully weaving them into its fabric, using its characters’ identities not to check boxes but to paint a vibrant and varied world that covers the trials and tribulations of high school from the low-stakes shit like crushes and clique drama to much higher stakes conflicts like unsafe living conditions, sexual assault, and violence.

But the thing about high school is that, often times, it all feels like life-or-death, even when it’s extremely not. It’s easy to become obsessed with your own problems. In high school, our lives are so contained, so controlled by others. Amerie and Harper’s friendship fight stems from Amerie’s myopia and the fact that despite insisting she’d always be there for Harper, she wasn’t when it mattered most. Harper isn’t innocent in all of this either. While her anger at Amerie is warranted, she also makes selfish choices.

Flashbacks to the night of the music festival are used throughout every episode, eventually building to the finale when Harper shares her full account of what happened that night and we watch it play out in-scene. The little bursts of flashback used throughout the season don’t seem to be a sleight of hand for the sake of suspense/plotting but rather much more character-driven. We’re watching things play out from Amerie’s memories of the night until the finale, and Amerie was not only high and drunk on the night of the festival but also just so focused on herself and not really listening to Harper. It’s immediately clear from the premiere that something bad happened to Harper that night, but the show isn’t about the mystery so much as its aftermath. When we do watch things play out from Harper’s perspective, it isn’t even just one bad thing or one big reveal but rather an escalating series of traumatic experiences that make it clear that Harper and Amerie were not really in a safe environment at any point at this music festival as young girls — especially when separated.

While about so much more than this tension between Amerie and Harper, Heartbreak High is an excellent entry into the canon of art about friendship breakups. Their friendship feels distinctly queer — not in the sense that I think they actually want to date each other but in the sense that their relationship almost transcends definitions of love, friendship, family, existing somewhere between these spaces. This friendship fight along with the social and sex lives of both Darren and Quinni make Heartbreak High a very queer, very character-driven drama that understands teens are both very complex and also very simplistic in the ways they view conflict and drama. At every turn, they self-sabotage and make “bad” choices. But amid the mess, they also find ways to love and hold each other. So many hearts are broken in so many different ways over the course of the season. But the show is full of heart and healing, too.


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Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is the managing editor of Autostraddle and a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Miami. She is the assistant managing editor of TriQuarterly, and her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Joyland, Catapult, The Offing, and more. Some of her pop culture writing can be found at The A.V. Club, Vulture, The Cut, and others. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

Kayla has written 433 articles for us.

7 Comments

  1. Thank you for your recap. I am an autistic queer Australian so this show feels like it was made for me in a way.

    I related to Quinni so much, particularly the episode where Sasha went to the book signing with her. It mirrored so many of my own experiences with partners and friends being so negative about my hyperfixations or special interests. My heart just broke for her to have her passions and excitement completely disregarded like that.

    The depiction of police brutality towards Aboriginal (Aboriginal should always be capitalised fyi) people was particularly poignant. My only really big criticism of the show is that out of the ensemble we spent the least amount of time with Missy. I would have loved to see more of her.

  2. I loved this show so much. It reminded me so much of a perfect combination (and I’m gonna show my age here) between Degrassi TNG, Skins and Sex Education, but without wanting to imitate any of them on purpose, so it’s great to have a show with such a distinct and fresh voice that deals with so much, but like… succeeds at it.

    I loved basically every non-straight guy character in this show, maybe except for Sasha because I thought she was always so judgemental towards everyone and so fast to cut ties without hearing other people’s reasons, and then she was basically trash to Qunni and expected the exact opposite treatment she’d given her friends. However I do love that we got such messy representation, and I wasn’t even mad because it was well done and the other queer stories were also done very well. I think that’s how you know a show is doing queer stuff right.

  3. I was about to go to bed early at 8pm when Netflix recommended that show, didn’t go to sleep until 4am, this show was way better than it had a right to be. Loved it. Harper is so god damn hot. I really hope we’ll see more of this show.

  4. I wouldn’t have watched this show had it not been mentioned on this site. I decided to hold off on reading the review until I watched it all. I didn’t expect to love it as much as I did. I wish this show had been on when I was in my teen years.
    Quinnie’s excitement over meeting her favorite author was one of my favorite moments of the show, even though it was followed by the crushing disinterest of her girlfriend. Their interactions in that episode would have been so helpful for me as a young teen- getting a sense of what boundaries are, emotional manipulation, etc.

    I look forward to watching this show again.

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