Friday, 24 February 2023

Bad Behaviour

It seems like one of those surprising pop-cultural coincidences that Bad Behaviour, a four-part adaptation of Rebecca Starford’s memoir of surviving a year on the wilderness campus of an elite private school, was released a month before the second season of Yellowjackets is scheduled to begin. It also feels somewhat serendipitous that Erana James, last seen on the unfortunately cancelled The Wilds, plays Ronnie, one of the inner-circle members of the popular girls in “red house” (the girls are grouped into cabins to live in) – she has only a few scenes, but two of them are profoundly memorable. Halfway through the torture, Ronnie, in an act that could be read as attempting to be helpful, tells Jo Mackenzie, the main character, to maybe try less hard, in another, an adult Ronnie at the funeral of one of their former cabin mates performs as the ultimate grown up mean girl, wine glass in hand. Both The Wilds and the more successful Yellowjackets are about groups of girls stranded in the wilderness trying to survive, but in a deeper sense, about the baggage (and class distinctions) each of them still carries with them even when all other trappings of civilisation are stripped away, and what happens when group dynamics play out through pre-existing and then survival conditions.

The survival, in these two cases, is necessitated by being stranded far from civilisation in the wilderness due to a catastrophe (even though in The Wilds, that catastrophe is manufactured to set up a social experiment). In Bad Behaviour, it’s by choice. The year in the wilderness, separated from their family and non-school friends, deprived of their electronic devices, is meant to imbue character. The endless hikes and runs are designed to reveal and strengthen character, as if the refutation of modern life could whittle these fifteen-year-olds down to something more essential, as if the only way to create successful, self-reliant adults is to strip away all the trappings of 21st century adolescence. The most beautiful thing, and a character of its own (much like in Picnic at Hanging Rock, set 110 years earlier) is the Australian bush, captured gorgeously by director Corrie Chen (who has accomplished a similar feat in 2021’s New Gold Mountain, depicting Australian history through the eyes of Chinese immigrants mining for gold). It is the establishment that ascribes character-changing properties to these lands that are only “wild” in the perception of the new-comers – if you remember the lessons taught in the serial adaptation of Picnic at Hanging Rock, there is plenty of pre-existing history and indigenous land management that has gone into the shaping of the landscape, it is just not perceived as such by the descendants of white colonisation. 

Jo Mackenzie (played by Austrian-born Jana McKinnon, whose previous credits include a new adaptation of 1981 German film We Children from Bahnhof Zoo, about a group of Berlin teenagers who try to survive heroin and prostitution) has chosen this elite school out of ambition, unwilling to settle for what she perceives as her parents’ mediocre life. She is there on a scholarship, which already sets her apart from many of the other girls who are there because their parents are rich. It’s interesting to consider if McKinnon’s perfect performance of being thrown into an unfamiliar environment with no previous social links is informed by the fact that she did not live through the Australian education system (private schools exist but are rare in Austria, as are school uniforms and single-sex education). In any case, she portrays Jo’s initial sense of alienation perfectly, and the struggle to find a place within the social hierarchy that already seems well-established when she arrives. Jo soon discards the first girl who offers companionship and friendship, fellow scholarship student Alice (Yerin Ha, outstanding in a great cast), when she realises that sticking with her would put her on the outs with the popular girls, who have formed a tightly-knit clique that terrorises everybody else (and occasionally, when no other targets present, each other, by pecking order). The group is headed by Portia (Markella Kavenagh), who appears to have built a survival mechanism against the boredom of a year in the bush by enforcing a precarious social order – there is a constant inner circle, but occasionally, others are admitted for a time until she decides to brutally punish them for a perceived infraction against rules that remain so unclear that nobody can ever feel safe. The girls mock, belittle, play pranks that are meant to scar, and the adults that are meant to supervise are ridiculously ineffective. In fact, adult control seems to only really work against the scholarship students, who can be threatened financially, while the fee-paying students are cushioned mostly by their privilege, unless their transgressions are truly severe. 

Bad Behaviour works with two timelines. Jo, ten years later, now a struggling writer living in an inner-city sharehouse with friend Ruby (Mantshologane Maile) and newcomer Saskia (Daya Czepanski) is reminded of her time at Silver Creek when she runs into Alice at the concert hall where she works. Alice is now a world-renowned cellist, but instead of willingly bonding over their shared horrible experience of being an outcast, Alice calls out Jo for being one of the worst bullies of red house. It creates a dissonance in Jo’s self-perception as a victim of what happened, and she begins to remember the year just as the characters of her memories begin to pop up in her presence, as if Alice had only been a first harbinger of being haunted by the past. Bad Behaviour turns out to be about how unreliable biographic memory is, especially for memories of being a teenager, when it is so difficult to see yourself as anything other than the main character of the story and others as supporting characters. 

The memories are a haunting also in the sense that Jo’s present begins to mirror and echo the past. As she unpacks how her fascination with (and attraction to) Portia made it impossible for her to stay away, Portia begins appearing more and more, rekindling a relationship that reveals itself as deeply disturbing in the past. Just as back then, Emma (Abbey Morgan), another student housing in red house and Alice’s only loyal friend, provided an alternative version of events to Jo (she could ditch the popular girls and still survive, she could have friends who do not thrive on torturing others, she could be less weak), her best friend Ruby now appeals to her to not repeat the mistakes of the past in pursuing Portia, and mistreating housemate Saskia (who has a tragic unrequited crush on her that Jo uses when it suits her, destroying the dynamic of the sharehouse in the process). The characters of Emma and Ruby serve as reminders of the positive choices that are open to Jo, that she seems doomed to be incapable of making. As much as she is discovering herself in these memories, trying to untangle why Alice has come to the conclusion that being betrayed by a potential friend was worse than being tortured by someone who appeared to do it simply for entertainment, she is also unable to break out of her toxic behaviours. From how she talks about her past relationships, it feels like she’s been trapped in this for a long time, always incapable to being attracted to anyone who didn’t treat her as poorly as Portia did, and shying away from commitment.

With Saskia, she seems to thrive on the same power that Portia held over her – where feelings are never communicated and confirmed, where nothing is ever certain because certainty would give agency. A teenage Jo is deeply attracted to Portia in an environment where the sheer accusation of maybe being gay means certain social death and more torture, and Portia realises both the attraction and the power it brings her to never confirm or deny that she feels the same. The spell doesn’t break when Portia and Jo inevitably begin hooking up, but it provides small moments where Bad Behaviour gives glimpses into Portia’s motivations (perhaps the show would have been even better had it provided more of that rather than being utterly trapped in Jo’s subjectivity, but it’s a very conscious choice here), a hint that all this cruelty was Portia’s way of surviving. In any case, the school’s promise of creating self-reliance through isolation and allowing most of these dynamics to play out without much intervention (red house’s responsible teacher is barely older than the girls, and a frequent target for abuse herself) is based in a false ideology that has, if anything, scarred most of the girls deeply, some because of what has happened to them, others because it has revealed aspects of themselves that are very hard to live with. The wilderness doesn’t reveal a purer character, it just exists indifferently – and isolation and exertion, in the end, do nothing but create a hierarchy that breaks individual girls apart at the seams.

The ending – Jo going back to Silver Creek during school break, alone in the landscape rather than surrounded by the pressure of surviving socially – isn’t much of a catharsis – maybe it rekindles the broken relationship with her mother, when they both recognise that the circumstances of Silver Creek made it impossible to communicate their true feelings about, what was ultimately, a loss -  but Jo is a writer, and the story she writes and gets published in an anthology is maybe the first true recognition of her own shortcomings and Alice’s suffering (she dedicates the story to her, as the person who has suffered the worst of it) that she provides. 

2023, created by Pip Karmel and Amanda Higgs, starring Jana McKinnon, Markella Kavenagh, Yerin Ha, Erana James, Mantshologane Maile, Melissa Kahraman, Tuuli Narkle, Diana Glenn, Daya Czepanski, Abbey Morgan.

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