Since I first watched We Can Be Heroes in 2005 I’ve been a great admirer of Chris Lilley’s work. Summer Heights High (first screened in Australia in 2007, and on the BBC and HBO in 2008) is probably Lilley’s most popular series, but for me Angry Boys (2011) – a show that engendered a much more mixed reaction from critics – really showcased Lilley’s talent for creating characters on a grand scale (read my review of Angry Boys here). Lilley’s latest project Ja’mie: Private School Girl is entertaining, and certainly proves once again Lilley’s ability to completely become a character. However, Ja’mie lacks the pathos and emotional power of We Can Be Heroes and Angry Boys, and the series left me slightly disappointed at its ending.
Like Lilley’s previous shows, Ja’mie is a cultural satire filmed in mockumentary style; in this case a six episode satire that targets upper-middle-class private school girls in Australia. The series is set in Sydney (though it was filmed in Melbourne), and is based on Lilley’s observations of school girls. The star of the show is Ja’mie King (played by Lilley), a character that first appeared in We Can Be Heroes and was also featured in Summer Heights High. Ja’mie is seventeen and in her final year of school at Hillford Girls Grammar. She is the school captain, self-professed most popular girl in school, and on a mission to win the school’s most prestigious award, the Hillford medal. Ja’mie spends much of the show surrounded by a posse of prefects, girls who sycophantically tell her how wonderful she is and how much they “fucking love” her. Ja’mie is incredibly spoilt (she comes from a background of extreme privilege – her house has its own elevator, she is constantly supplied with new iPads) and incredibly narcissistic. She screams at her younger sister Courtney (played by Madelyn Warrell), calls her mother (Jhyll Teplin) a bitch, and sucks up to her father (Brad Brivik) to get what she wants.
Ja’mie’s world is extremely well created. To add to the show’s authenticity many of the supporting actors are school girls themselves, and scenes between Ja’mie and her prefects feel natural and unrehearsed. However, some scenes do run on a bit long, and the often incoherent (though very realistic) cacophony of teenage girls talking over each other does get annoying. Ja’mie is also (unfortunately) a very real character, and a very unlikable one. This, I feel, is where Ja’mie fails to achieve the greatness of Lilley’s previous work. The characters in Angry Boys, for example, are similarly flawed and cringe-worthy. However, Lilley makes an effort to give each character a human moment, to let the audience see that their selfishness or immaturity come from very relatable places of insecurity. Ja’mie is given no such moment. From the beginning to the end of the series Ja’mie remains selfish and manipulative; she doesn’t change at all (her final voiceover is “Deep down inside, I’ll always be a private school girl”). Lilley’s treatment of Ja’mie’s world is mostly surface, while his other shows manage to go much deeper. We are given Ja’mie’s obnoxious, for-the-cameras persona, but get very little idea of the complex human being she must be underneath. There are numerous opportunities for Lilley to delve deeper in Ja’mie’s character, to allow us to sympathise with her, but he doesn’t fully utilise them. One such moment comes when Ja’mie’s mother asks her if she thinks it’s strange that her father is taking his beautiful young assistant to Ja’mie’s graduation. “Mum, you do realise Dad’s an idiot, he’s just really rich and that’s why we need him”, Ja’mie says, before flouncing off into the elevator. The almost-connection here between Ja’mie and her mother is brushed over, and is quickly forgotten in the face of the show’s extravagant and shocking climax.
I did enjoy Private School Girl, but I wasn’t moved by Ja’mie the way I was by Ruth Sims in Angry Boys or Pat Mullins in We Can Be Heroes. And unlike Lilley’s previous shows, I don’t think Ja’mie would survive a second viewing. Lilley has announced that his next project will be a series about Jonah, one of the central characters from Summer Heights High. I can see Jonah being a more relatable and likeable character than Ja’mie King, but I wonder if revisiting old characters is the best way for Lilley to realise his full potential as a writer and performer. I will definitely be watching Jonah in 2014; hoping Lilley can recapture the human connection he has so successfully portrayed in the past.
Ja’mie: Private School Girl was created and written by Chris Lilley, and produced by Princess Pictures. Chris Lilley and Laura Waters were executive producers on the series. Ja’mie aired in Australia in October 2013 and in the US in November.