Bad Behaviour hits a sweet spot in isolated girls school drama

Bad Behaviour hits a sweet spot in isolated girls school drama

February 8, 2023

At times resembling a female version of Lord of the Flies set on the country campus of a prestigious boarding school, Bad Behaviour focuses on the sometimes-brutal nature of the girls’ relationships: the power plays, the critical decisions and compromises, the unarticulated desires, and, yes, the bad behaviour.

It mainly deals with the experiences of scholarship student Jo McKenzie (Jana McKinnon) and more briefly a couple of her classmates, tracing their move into adulthood a decade later and in the process pondering the fallout from their time at Silver Creek.

Bad Behaviour has been invited to screen at the Berlin International Film Festival.

The four-part drama is based on Rebecca Starford’s memoir which was published in 2015. Excited by its possibilities as a TV project, producer Amanda Higgs and associate producer and screenwriter Pip Karmel quickly secured the rights. But the road to the screen wasn’t easy.

A producer with a strong track record, Higgs (The Secret Life of Us, The Time of Our Lives, Barracuda, Mustangs FC) sighs. “Put a gun in a man’s hand, in any crime circumstance, one that no one in the history of the world could imagine, and ping! Greenlit show. Try to make a show about young women, people that I think we can all relate to, that feels very connected to who we are and how we live our lives, and that’s really hard. I’m shocked at how hard it is.”

She says it’s especially difficult if the story doesn’t have a crime element – like a body being discovered in the forest – or a cataclysmic event, like the plane crash in Yellowjackets.

Eventually, Higgs notes with relief, the project found a “champion” in executive producer Amanda Duthie at Stan, without having to kill off one of the girls in order to secure support. Additional affirmation came this month with Bad Behaviour becoming one of seven Australian productions invited to screen at the Berlin International Film Festival.

Jana McKinnon and Yerin Ha in Bad Behaviour.Credit:Jane Zhang

While there were numerous versions of the script along the way, Higgs says that ultimately she, Karmel (Total Control, New Gold Mountain) and director Corrie Chen (New Gold Mountain) “believed in the power of the source material”.

While acknowledging that there’s “something unrelenting about the story”, Higgs says: “I’m interested in character-driven material and it felt like Bad Behaviour hit that sweet spot of a story that hadn’t been told before.” She believes that while the circumstances of the tale are specific, the behaviour and emotions that it explores are universal.

In Silver Creek’s Red House, which was purpose-built by the production on a property in Hesket in Victoria’s Macedon Ranges, the girls are mostly left to their own devices. They’re isolated and surrounded by forest, with a dorm mistress (Tuuli Narkle) dropping in to check on their progress and to supervise activities: hiking, running, camping, collecting wood. The rest of the campus – the dining room, the unseen other houses and classrooms – deliberately seem distant.

Jo quickly discovers that her dorm is dominated by Portia (Markella Kavenagh), who has enablers and favoured targets. The queen bee can shift alliances on a whim, her unpredictability a part of her power. She bestows and withdraws affection, keeping everyone off balance and tormenting those she sees as vulnerable. One of her regular victims is music-scholarship student Alice (Yerin Ha), who is a friend for Jo. At first.

Much of Jo’s response to her turbulent time at the school is conveyed via her demeanour rather than her dialogue. Initially, she’s seen as open-faced and optimistic, sitting in the back of her parents’ car (they’re played by Dan Spielman and Diana Glenn) as she heads to the school that she’s worked hard to attend, excited about the experience that awaits her. But she soon finds herself ensnared in the rugged politics of Red House and gradually closes in on herself, her sunniness slowly darkening.

Higgs describes Jo as “both a victim and a perpetrator”.

“She’s an intelligent young person, but she’s an outsider,” she explains. “When she comes to see who these people are, she’s really attracted to that power. I hope that we understand that she’s part of all of us: we all have the capacity to be that person in any given environment.”

Jo’s increasingly hamstrung by her desperate desire to win acceptance, affection and approval from Portia. “It’s like she’s treading on broken glass to get to Portia, she doesn’t want to put a foot wrong,” says Higgs.

For her part, McKinnon concedes: “I can definitely see that Jo may not be likable at all times, but I do hope she’s lovable.

“I hope that people will be able to relate to her. I think that there’s something very familiar in these behaviours. Most people have done things that they’re not proud of, or know that they might’ve hurt someone. Those are universal things and everyone has experienced that, although maybe not in the way that Jo does. I have a lot of empathy for that, how she is just so desperate to belong, but that makes her make some really bad decisions.”

McKinnon, who lives in Austria and Australia, has been acting for years (We Children of Bahnhof Zoo, To the Night, Beautiful Girl), often in German-language films. She says with satisfaction that playing Jo “was definitely demanding, but in the best possible way because there was so much that you could get your teeth into”.

“Corrie is incredibly precise and knows exactly what she wants, and that was really great to work with. I felt really close to my cast mates, as well as to Corrie and Amanda, so I never felt alone in the process.”

Beyond Jo’s wrenching trials, Higgs notes that “so much of the show is shot so specifically from Jo’s point of view that the mystery of Portia remains”. She notes that Kavanagh was brave to take on the role, adding that the actress “brings a great humanity” to Red House’s alpha female.

While allowing that the drama is viewed “very much from the protagonist’s perspective”, Kavanagh (Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Gloaming, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power) created a backstory for her character in an effort to understand her motivations.

“Portia’s an impossible person to predict,” she says. “She’s volatile and ruthless. I think she’s deeply lonely and I wanted to ground her in a longing for connection, although she sabotages people’s efforts to understand her. She believes that without power you’re a victim and she’ll do almost anything to avoid being a victim.”

In both of the time periods that it covers, Bad Behaviour depicts a complicated, confusing and sometimes destructive storm of emotions and desires. And Chen often lets the camera linger, capturing expressions and responses, not cutting away as quickly as others might and creating a more contemplative tone and pace.

Higgs says that bringing the drama to life on screen required focus and rigour. “Corrie has an incredible strength of vision and an ability to hold the tone of the show. Intense is a word we used a lot when we talked about it, and obsessive is also a word we used a lot. I hope that it grabs people and holds them in that intensity all the way through. This is probably one of the slowest-paced shows that I’ve ever made and I think that’s its beauty and its strength.”

Jo’s journey, as a teenager and an adult, can be gruelling, but ultimately McKinnon says: “What I really like about the ending is that it’s a starting point for changing and going through life differently, which I think is really beautiful.”

Bad Behaviour screens on Stan

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