Created and written by: Laurie Nunn
Directed by: Kate Herron and Ben Taylor
Cast: Asa Butterfield, Gillian Anderson, Emma Mackey and Ncuti Gatwa
Most of us have swooned when the girl-next-door is finally asked to the prom by the coolest guy in the class. We have also reckoned with the due process, of a plain Jane turning into a beauty overnight, courtesy a makeover by a guardian angel of sorts. Teenagers and their high school shenanigans have occupied a special spot in mainstream cinema, as well as in the hearts of film goers. In Neflix’s recent original Sex Education, the same teenagers and their escapades — sexual and otherwise — are the central theme. While American high school narratives have long dominated public memory, this show is special, as it’s set across the pond, and refreshingly is not set in London, but in a small town of Moordale — there is a marked absence of cars with drunk teenagers in them.
Our hero is Otis Millburn, a shy 16-year-old, who, predictably, is on the periphery of the entrenched social hierarchy. His best friend is Eric, a dramatic and loud gay guy. What makes Otis special, is the fact that his mother — played by the brilliant Gillian Anderson — is a sex therapist and has virtually no boundaries with her son. He has grown up with sexual aids and paraphernalia around him, and more copies of the Kamasutra in his household that he could care to account for, and the fact that his mother‘ doesn’t do boyfriends’. Oh, wait and yes Otis struggles in his own sexual life and activities. But all that indecent exposure has given him an edge — although he himself is inexperienced — he has more information on the birds and the bees and related stuff. He is roped in by the maverick school rebel Maeve (Emma Mackey) to counsel fellow students with their extra-curricular problems, for some extra cash on the side. What follows is the opening of a Pandora’s box, and Otis tries to navigate the labyrinth of teenage sexual activities.
Be it Rebel Without a Cause, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Dazed and Confused, John Hughes’s The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Sixteen Candles or Juno. These movies have given us enough ideas as to what fun American high schools could be. TV shows like One Tree Hill, Glee and Friday Night Lights explored high school through sports and music filters. Closer home we have had Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar, Rockford, the abominable Student Of the Year and the TV show Hip Hip Hurray, which delved into the life of school goers.
Sex Education is a welcome change in the narrative of high-school films and shows. While it does employ the predictable tropes: the beloved school jock has trouble at home and is super pressurised by his parents; the school anti-hero is worried about his ‘performance’ and has clear abandonment issues with his headmaster father; the pink-haired, goth-eyeliner girl is actually a softie deep inside; and wait for it, there is a scene very akin to the “Oh Captain ! My Captain!” one from Dead Poets Society, which I think is a perfect homage to Robin Williams and the iconic film. The film is not hyper sexual, even though the premise is sex. The films deals with issues of intimacy, peer pressure and broken families with a sensitivity that is inspiring. Themes like cyber bullying, abortions, single parenthood are also touched upon without being preachy. What Sex Education gets really bang on, are the insecurities and stigma still attached to everything sexual, even in this age of prolific technology and information available at the swipe of a finger.
The characters are etched to perfection, and their backstories are given enough screen time and thought, courtesy the almost hour long episodes in an eight-episode season. Asa Butterfield rendition of Otis is heartwarming. Previously seen in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Hugo and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, he is spot on with his bumbling and clumsy act as Otis. His mortification and embarrassment for having a sex therapist as a mother is endearing. Gillian Anderson’s portrayal of a sex therapist and single mother is quite a shift from her well known roles of a cop in The X-Files and The Fall. The music of the show deserves a special mention. The curated soundtrack, might as well be on your music player, titled nostalgia, or throwback to the good times.
Watch, if you are missing the good old days, or to be reminded of what fun it was to be young and to be in love. Or if you want to be assured that even though everything looks and feels different, high school is pretty much the same.
Sex Education streams on Netflix on January 11