Leader of the pack: Chris Lilley’s Jonah Takalua (centre).It’s hard to think of anyone on TV who excites as much interest or divides audiences as dramatically as Chris Lilley. He initially won widespread attention and admiration with 2005’s We Can Be Heroes and subsequently cemented his reputation and his place in viewers’ hearts and minds with Summer Heights High (2007).
But with each subsequent series – Angry Boys (2011), last year’s Ja’mie: Private School Girl and now Jonah From Tonga – there have been eruptions of controversy and heated debates about Lilley’s talent and his work. All sorts of labels have been thrown at him, from genius to racist. And it’s not hard to see why. The unassuming actor, writer, producer and director creates uncomfortable, minutely and acutely observed worlds, and he specialises in dislikable protagonists that thrill some viewers and appall others.
He plays them all himself, with transformations that are nothing short of extraordinary. This man, now approaching the age of 40, disappears into his creations, whether it’s a Tongan schoolboy, a privileged middle-class princess, a puffed-up drama teacher or a washed-up surfer.
Lilley is an artist who resolutely plays his own game by his own rules. Supported since Angry Boys by prestige broadcasters on three continents – the BBC, HBO and our own ABC – he’s achieved a level of autonomy that would be the envy of any creative talent. And what he’s done with that licence is to create increasingly scathing satires of race, class and gender.
Lilley’s humour has never been warm and fuzzy or laugh-out-loud funny: it’s comedy that makes you uneasy – of the “Can you believe that he or she just said or did that?” variety – and the further it goes, the more uncompromising it becomes. The sweeter characters, such as aspiring champion roller Pat Mullins and eager musical theatre performer Ricky Wong from We Can Be Heroes, have receded into the background, giving way to the more extreme fantasists: Jen Okazaki, the monstrous Japanese mother of Angry Boys, and boastful black rapper S.Mouse.
Lilley’s characters are compelling, but hard to like: they have sharp edges and they grate. A wildly deluded bunch, they’re all convinced of their own fabulousness. But, invariably, they’re headed for a fall, which we might kind of enjoy given that they can be so annoying. Watching their progress is like waiting to see a car crash: potentially gruesome, but somehow you can’t look away. And, unexpectedly, they also inspire sympathy.
Take Jonah Takalua, for example. The 14-year-old is obnoxious: a profanity-spouting bully; a puerile provocateur; the leader of a pack who has no idea where he’s going. He’s not too bright, barely literate and reckons he’s headed for uni, to study something and get rich. He idolises gangster types who use him as fodder for their own amusement. He takes pride in his hair, his recently acquired tattoo and his skill as a break-dancer, which is patently underwhelming. Like everything else about him, it lacks consistent effort or discipline. He’s a creature of erratic impulse, a loose cannon.
Yet he’s one of Lilley’s more disarming creations because he’s also a flailing teenager, a messy bundle of frustration and neediness, a badly aimed missile seeking attention and affection, a boy who lost his mum at an early age and has a dad who has no idea how to deal with him.
That Lilley makes us care about Jonah, and his entire gallery of flawed characters, is one of his great achievements. Relentlessly self-absorbed, they’re never as accomplished as they think they are. We watch them strut and preen and posture, and we wait for them to get their comeuppance. But when they falter, Lilley steers us to the hope that they won’t be destroyed as their dreams are shattered. Subtly and stealthily, we are encouraged to empathise with these nutters.
We see what they’re striving for, in all its wrong-headedness, but we also glimpse the fragility behind their facades. So even though we want them to fail, to get what’s coming to them, we don’t really want them to be totally destroyed. The achievement of that delicate balance, somewhere between horror and empathy, is some juggling act.
And Lilley makes them resilient. His characters don’t change and they don’t crack, break, reform or dissolve into penitent little pieces. They don’t see the light, they blithely carry on. And as they do, Lilley works to make us care about them.
He’s a unique and distinctive talent. The worlds he creates reveal him to be an uncannily acute observer of his society in its myriad imperfections. And his compassion reveals itself in surprising ways. These are gifts to be celebrated.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on 老域名.