The terrific new Kiwi drama series Head High, which finished its run in New Zealand a month ago, arrived in the US last week (and elsewhere, too).

Head High
Head High: Miriama McDowell as Renee O’Kane and Craig Hall as Vince O’Kane — Photo © South Pacific Pictures 2020

Head High opens with two teen-aged brown-skinned boys running furiously from a bunch of white ones dressed in private school uniforms, who are chasing them in an SUV.

These days, this scene could be played out in real life in a lot of places. In the series it happens in South Auckland.

Two brown cops race to get to the boys before they get beaten to a pulp, while a white man tries to persuade a roadside barista into sponsoring his high school rugby team so they can get new kits (uniforms).

As it turns out, the two teens of Māori descent are brothers Mana (Jayden Daniels, Shortland Street) and Tai (Lionel Wellington, Educators), the sons of the female cop, Police Constable Renee O’Kane (Miriama McDowell, The Brokenwood Mysteries, This Is Not My Life), and the stepsons of the rugby guy — their rugby coach — Vince O’Kane (Craig Hall, A Place to Call Home, The Doctor Blake Mysteries). Rounding out their family is Aria (Te Ao O’Hinepehinga Rauna), Renee and Vince’s 15-year-old daughter, a skilled high diver who lives in the shadow of her brothers.

Mana, Tai, and their fellow rugby players at Southdown High — a struggling, low-decile school whose students are (unfairly) called “thieves and thugs” by the barista — have just accomplished a huge feat: their team has made it to the 1A, the premiere rugby tournament for secondary schools in Auckland. So has the team at Saint Isaac’s College, the private school for posh rich kids that sits on the other side of the fence that separates their respective rugby fields.

With much at stake for both schools, certain powers-that-be at Saint Isaac’s do what needs must. That is, “offense, defense.” Translation: throw money at it, in whatever form, to ensure getting to the final and winning it. But no one could have imagined the tragedy that would come from this, one that is devastating to the O’Kane family, two of the children in particular. Not that this stops Saint Isaac’s from pulling more bad sportsmanship stunts, another of which works.

Soon after the tragedy, a situation causes Renee and Vince to open their home to a family in need, which brings new stresses and stressors into their household, where someone is already hiding not one but two painful secrets. The kicker, though, is the reappearance of someone from the O’Kanes’ past — a return that throws both the family and Vince’s goals into turmoil.

So many things appear to be falling apart now. The question is whether the same will happen to Vince’s team and their shot at history-making victory.

Fabulous from start to finish, Head High is not the rugby version of the American series Friday Night Lights or the Belgian series The Score (Spitsbroers). While sport is central to the narrative, the series is more of a family drama, one that deals with the everyday concerns of working class parents and their children, as well as social issues that are ingrained in the fabric of their (and nearly everyone else’s) lives — from money and education, honor and fairness, and love and sex, to sexuality and sexual abuse, social acceptance and bullying, and prejudices and abuses of power and privilege.

All that, in just six drama-packed, easily-bingeable episodes of under an hour each.

The storyline — filled with all manner of drama, including love, loss, lust, betrayal, fear, and wickedness — feels authentic, the characters accessible. It doesn’t matter whether one relates to being a parent or a teen or whatever; the show’s universality and ability to connect with viewers lie in its humanness and its realness.

Fingers crossed for a second season.

As one would expect, the brilliant Miriama McDowell and Craig Hall deliver great performances as the hard-working, no-BS mum, Renee, and the easygoing, rugby-mad dad, Vince. The actors who blew me away, though, are Jayden Daniels, Lionel Wellington, and Te Ao O’Hinepehinga Rauna (in her first on-screen role); they inhabit the characters of Mana, Tai, and Aria so fully, I never thought of them as acting while I was watching them.

Featuring in the series are Andi Crown (The Brokenwood Mysteries), Mike Edwards (Nothing Trivial), Theresa Healey (The Blue Rose), Torum Heng (Go Girls), Jaime McDermott (Westside), Brooklyn Nathan (The Dead Lands), Joe Naufahu (Game of Thrones), and Byron Repia (The Shannara Chronicles).

Produced by South Pacific Pictures (The Sounds, The Brokenwood Mysteries, 800 Words), Head High is currently available for streaming in the US exclusively on Prime Video.

(Viewers across the pond can stream the series on Prime Video UK, and those north of the border can stream it on Prime Video Canada.)

UPDATE: I’ve been informed that “there seems to have been some kind of issue with the Amazon Prime deal so they have had to take the show down for now… Hopefully it will be resolved shortly, but at the moment you can’t access it.” I’ll post another update once the series is available again.


Prime Video

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Head High: Top-Notch New Drama Series from New Zealand Now Streaming in the US
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