KILLINGS, daily columns and blog —

Column: Film and TV

Not so ‘quiche': Chris Lilley’s Ja’mie: Private School Girl

by Anthony Morris , December 10, 20135 Comments

Private School Girl

If we’ve learnt anything from Chris Lilley’s latest series Ja’mie: Private School Girl, it’s that no one in their right mind wants to see Ja’mie topless. Once you look past Ja’mie’s bizarre and frankly creepy on-stage disrobing at the climax of the series (if you even can because Chris Lilley’s head on a teenage girl’s body really was the stuff of nightmares), everything else going on in this series was old news. What, Ja’mie is a racist, self-obsessed horror who insults and manipulates everyone around her in a painfully transparent fashion? Lilley established that back in 2005 with Ja’mie’s appearance in the six-part We Can Be Heroes. And then he did it again in 2008 with her appearance in the eight-part Summer Heights High. Taking another six episodes to revisit this well-worn ground seemed a touch self-indulgent, but when has Lilley ever been anything but?

Lilley makes television where he plays all the main roles then squeezes out the supporting characters until they barely register. The first episode of Ja’mie promised subplots involving Ja’mie’s enemies at school, her relationship with her little sister and her parents’ obviously troubled marriage. By the end of the series all three had been lucky to get a handful of scenes across the entire six episodes; what little screen time they grabbed usually involved standing around while Ja’mie shouted or swore at them. Then again, Lilley prefers to deal with non-professional actors. ‘I prefer just bossing real people around,’ he says, which only reinforces the feeling that Ja’mie is the only ‘real’ character on the series.

Ja’mie’s group of friends were an undifferentiated mass of teen mean girls, a Greek chorus cheering her on. Who could pick that one girl who betrayed Ja’mie out of a line up? The only kind of scenes her parents and teachers were allowed to have were ones where they lectured Ja’mie while she rolled her eyes or swore at them. As for her relationships, one was with a boy whose longest on camera sequence was a montage of moments with Ja’mie right before they broke up and the other was with an African refugee who barely spoke English, whom she treated like a slave.

Ja’mie is a frighteningly self-obsessed character created by someone who seems to share some of her self-obsession. Lilley (who as star, writer, producer and co-director, amongst other credits, is basically a one-man band off-screen as well as on) keeps the focus on her (that is to say, himself) so firmly that even elements you’d expect to be central to a comedy – such as the comedy – often felt like an afterthought. Every show Lilley has done has featured the same elements: total self-obsession (check); dubious comedy songs (check); terrible stage performances (check); racism played for laughs (check). Large chunks of this series might as well have featured Ricky Wong. Or Mr G. Or S.mouse.

For a show that was often lauded for its documentary-like insight into teenage girls (Lilley himself describes it as such, saying, ‘To me, it’s really funny that my character is in a real environment and you think it’s a real documentary’), large stretches of the series seemed surprisingly unrealistic. Seriously, in the final episode she makes an on-stage rant about how the school has ripped her off and the principal comes on stage to stop her from talking…and then he promptly gives her back the mic so she can sing a school song.

Ja’mie never went to class. She wasn’t interested in clothes or trends or hobbies. In fact, for someone so self-obsessed she had no internal life at all. In an earlier look at Lilley’s Angry Boys I suggested that Lilley has become less subtle with each series:

In Lilley’s first solo effort We Can Be Heroes, Phil Olivetti was able to be both funny and pathetic at the same time. In contrast, the current crop are all two-stage characters from the same mould, comedy monsters who are revealed to have hearts of gold.

With Ja’mie, Lilley didn’t even bother with the heart of gold.

Chris Lilley’s career isn’t finished yet – there has already been a handful of promos for his next series early in 2014 – but how much longer can he go on playing characters half his age? With his next series based around Summer Heights High’s wayward student Jonah, he’ll once again be a man in his forties playing a teenager. Creatively he’s been repeating himself since day one, so it seems plausible to suggest that he’s been able to get away with it in large part by drawing in a new audience of teenagers each time. We Can Be Heroes aired in 2005; his current crop of teenage fans would have been in early primary school when Ja’mie first appeared. If Lilley’s going to keep those viewers coming back as he moves into his fifth decade, he’s going to have to come up with characters who change and grow up.

Anthony Morris is a Killings columnist and has been reviewing films for almost 20 years for a variety of publications, many of which have closed down through no fault of his own. Though his insistence on reviewing every single Adam Sandler movie may have played a part. 

His essay ‘A Bad Habit: Chris Lilley and How We Rate Comedy’ appears in Issue Three of Kill Your Darlings

ACO logo




  • Peter Farrar

    If nothing else, Lilley is an Anthropologist. He has in particular studied the habits (or if you like, the antics) of high school young women and translated them into the characteristics and especially speech patterns you see on this show. I know he’s nailed this, not even because I watch it (I don’t) but because my daughters say it is like watching their own schoolyard.

  • Amber

    I agree that the comedy in this series felt like an afterthought. It worried me that the sort of girls he was typecasting and their behaviour would condone it. The bullying, racism and body image themes did not sit well. Great article, though!

  • http://jennyackland.wordpress.com/ Jenny Ackland

    Great article. Agree that the potential of storylines in the first episode wasn’t picked up, and could have been.

    I think people watching Chris Lilley’s work simply ‘for the laughs’ aren’t watching it for the right reason or comprehensively. I don’t think it’s about humour necessarily which might be why it seems as an afterthought for some. I think it’s more about holding up a mirror so the viewer sees something that makes them very uncomfortable. More about social comment. And no heart of gold for Ja’mie because, she has no self-awareness, no sense of remorse, no heart. If she’d redeemed in that last episode that would have be even more wrong.

    • http://discombobula.blogspot.com Sue

      Yep, what you just said!

      I think Chris Lilley is really talented but I agree the whole thing is feeling somewhat jaded now. I was surprised at how long it’s been since WCBH first came out. I wonder if Chris is feeling stifled by expectation? I would like to see him head in a different direction, keeping that element of social commentary.

  • Brett Sprague

    He’s a bit sus that Chris Lilley

9781926428239

Abigail Ulman

Cold Feet and Hot Little Hands: Abigail Ulman on writing – and not writing – her first book

Post-book deal, every time I sat down to try to write something, I felt paralysed by some kind of literary stage fright. I had shown my work to other people before – for writing workshops, and submissions to literary journals and competitions – but I had never before written a story while thinking This story is going to be published in a book. Or, more accurately, This story idea is nowhere near good enough to be published in a book. Read more »

9781926428239

Sian Campbell

Girlhood and The Woman-Child in Abigail Ulman’s Hot Little Hands

Each of the stories in Hot Little Hands navigates girlhood in some way, from the lives of high school-age teenagers to those of young twentysomething women. ‘Girl things’ such as horse camp, gymnastics, feminised bodies, clothing, periods, crushes, yoga and gossip weave through the fabric of the text. Though the subject matter is often adult – the girls of Hot Little Hands navigate abortion, sex trafficking, young motherhood, drugs, and deportation – the girls themselves are not… even when they technically are. Read more »

Dont-Try-This-at-Home-_-cover_-FINAL1-300x460

James Tierney

Subscriber Stories: Angela Readman’s Don’t Try This At Home

As a subscriber to publisher And Other Stories’ distribution model, I am in the unusual position of reviewing a book – Angela Readman’s short story collection Don’t Try This At Home – that thanks me by name for making its existence possible. Read more »

amy-schumer

Rebecca Shaw

Amy Schumer and the equal right to be funny

I don’t think men should be banned from making jokes about contentious subjects. I am of the belief that anything can and should be laughed about, and if done right, it can be beneficial. But more often, women are doing it right, and women are doing it better. Read more »

womens-home-companion

Kate Iselin

Trivial Pursuits: The media and ‘women’s interests’

Women, especially in public life, exist as a part of men’s worlds – a big part, sure – but still a part. Even as women become more vocal in demanding accurate and respectful representation, we are kept at arms length by a mainstream media which struggles to catch up. Read more »

SGbTsPQ

Rebecca Shaw

Command and Control: Trophy daughters and overprotective dads

There is no doubt that an overprotective parent is better than a parent who couldn’t care less what their child gets up to. And there is no doubt that most overprotective mums and dads are well-meaning. But paternal ‘protectiveness’ shticks often boil down to fathers not wanting their daughters to have sex, and by extension, get pregnant. Read more »

Partisan

Joanna Di Mattia

To experience the world with blinkers on: Ariel Kleiman’s Partisan

Partisan beautifully evokes that complex space between childhood and adulthood, when we start to question the worldview we have inherited – when we begin to see the world through our own eyes. It is both a coming-of-age story, and an innocence-coming-undone story. Read more »

kstew

Joanna di Mattia

Kristen Stewart Through the Looking-Glass

Kristen Stewart is an actress who has been criticised, maligned even, for an acting style that transmits from set to screen as sullen, adolescent, wooden, blank, fidgety and inelegant. But perhaps she’s an actress concerned with authenticity, and the defining feature of her style is to show us herself by appearing like she’s not acting at all. Read more »

it-follows-4

Anwen Crawford

Behind You: The subtler horror of It Follows

I don’t watch many horror films. Lifelong victim of an overactive and slightly morbid imagination, I regularly envisage disasters, natural or otherwise, that might befall me, without requiring the added stimulus of cinema. Read more »

6428590-3x2-700x467

Anwen Crawford

Nothing Is Sacred: How 8MMM Aboriginal Radio is having the last laugh

8MMM Aboriginal Radio is a situation comedy in which an Indigenous woman always has the last laugh. That makes it a rarity on Australian television. What’s more, it’s funny, which too few sitcoms, local or otherwise, ever are. For both these feats we can thank Trisha Morton-Thomas, … Read more »

Struggle+Street+KEY+IMAGE

Anwen Crawford

Shame and Stigma on Struggle Street

Struggle Street framed poverty as a combination of genetic inheritance and natural disaster – a barrier to be overcome only through ceaseless positive effort. Those who sabotage themselves through bad choices are therefore fair targets for our scorn, while those who gain employment or remain sober deserve praise for overcoming the odds. The deserving and undeserving poor, in other words. What an old story. Read more »

TheSlap_Show

Genevieve Wood

The Slap: What’s lost when a cricket bat becomes a baseball bat?

‘A cricket bat wouldn’t make sense in an American context’, says Tony Ayres, executive producer of the US adaptation of Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap. He’s right, of course – it wouldn’t. But when, in US playwright Jon Robin Baitz’s version, the eponymous slap occurs as the result of a swinging baseball bat, something’s not quite right. Read more »

svfw crop

Katie Williams

Silicon Valley Fashion Week?: Fashion, technology, and wearability

Last week saw the inaugural Silicon Valley Fashion Week? (yes, with a question mark) unfold in San Francisco. The show promised ‘drones, robots, and mad inventions’, and tickets sold out swiftly; attendees were clearly eager to see more inventive clothing in this heartland of nerds. Read more »

AnimalCrossing copy

Katie Williams

Digging For Meaning in Utopia: Storytelling in Animal Crossing

Animal Crossing is a series of games in which – as my partner once remarked incredulously – ‘nothing ever happens.’ In its latest incarnation, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, you become the unwitting mayor of a town populated by anthropomorphic, bipedal animals. Read more »

DUKMRUTRHLU31425064919799

Katie Williams

The Currency of Games: The real world cost of in-game purchases

A new item introduced in World of Warcraft lets players purchase a month of playing time for the real-life price of $20, which they can then sell to other players in-game in exchange for virtual currency. It’s an exchange of real money for a virtual currency that has in-game value but none in the physical, ‘real’ world – and it makes me incredibly uneasy. Read more »

16741557134_5206bec0cd_k

Jane Howard

Dark Side of the Rainbow: Belvoir St Theatre’s The Wizard of Oz

This production of The Wizard of Oz is ‘after L Frank Baum’: after his book, after the 1939 film, and after our collective memories of both. Fragmented, non-narrative, and largely wordless, it relies on our existing knowledge of the text to build a work of images and emotion, and in doing so demands an extreme generosity from the audience. Read more »

Arts House_Image_10c_Oedipus Schmoedipus (post)_Credit – Ellis Parrinder copy

Jane Howard

A Case for Diversity in Theatre

Attracting different audiences to the theatre is about many things. It’s about accessibility for people without high disposable incomes, but it’s also about marketing and publicity; about creating venues which are physically accessible for people with disabilities; and about ensuring the performers on stage are as diverse as we want their audiences to be. Read more »

2909252617_1f456d0c81_b

Jane Howard

A Working-Class Mythology: Ironing boards at the theatre

In theatre, there is perhaps no prop piece more mythologised than the ironing board, which came to signify the birth of contemporary British theatre. Read more »