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‘Classmates’ Imagines Polytechnic Life as a Zany Joyride of Self-Discovery

26 June 2020

‘Classmates’ Imagines Polytechnic Life as a Zany Joyride of Self-Discovery

Sarah is an ordinary 17 year old who is looking forward to her tertiary school life. Siew Lim is just your normal mom who decides to continue her education that she did not get to complete. Like any teenager her age, Sarah dreams of making new friends, going to parties and going through a new adventure in a new school. However there is one stumbling block to those dreams, her mom has enrolled into the same class as her.

Director: Shaiful Reezal Tajri

Cast: Amy J Cheng, Rachel Wan, Benjamin Heng, Jerry Hoh, Sofia Dendroff, Yuslina Yussof

Year: 2020

Country: Singapore

Language: English

Runtime: About 20 minutes per episode

The jump from secondary school to tertiary education – particularly to the polytechnic level – can be both an exciting and intimidating adventure. It’s a time filled with awkwardness, confusion, and uncertainty. Local series Classmates looks to tease familiar anxieties with its quirky premise: what if your mother was always around during this clumsy period of self-discovery and reinvention?

I watched three episodes of the series for this review and there were already plenty of laughs to be had. However, most of these would come from its supporting cast more so than its leads – despite each holding their own, performance-wise. Still, Classmates should keep any fans of coming-of-age comedies entertained with its bright tone and light-hearted humour.

Each episode details the first few days of teenager Sarah (Rachel Wan) figuring out polytechnic life. Much to her surprise and annoyance, she finds out early on that her mother, Siew Lim (Amy J Cheng), ended up in the same class as her. Back at the homefront, Rachel’s father, Teck Hong (Jerry Hoh) looks to hide his retrenchment from his family.

The series moves along to the beats of most films and series about American high schools, which could make for an easy and familiar watch for fans of the format. It hosts the greatest hits of tropes: students are divided into different social groups, the teachers (lecturers, in this case) are off-beat and idiosyncratic, there are intricate, unsaid rules amongst the teengers that are learned and challenged.

At the same time, the casual use of these recognisable elements come with the loss of a local context’s uniqueness and charm. Sarah and Siew Lim engage in “polytechnic” activities such as group work and extracurricular activities but those don’t necessarily differentiate themselves from experiences from any other system or school. Polytechnic life is hardly explored in local film and television (at least since 2003’s Light Years) and it would have been fun to fully embrace the opportunity. 

Still, it might be unfair for me to have those expectations out of Classmates. The series makes it clear with its light tone that it aims to score more so with absurdity and outlandish humour. It’s one note, but a note that they know how to play.

Complemented by the exaggerated expressions, character traits are emphasised to varied results. Imagining a youth and overbearing mother sharing the same class is already enough to make any once-teenager wince. Yet, the series is relentless in presenting over-the-top confrontations that come off as overcompensating for humour’s sake.

Where Classmates shines is in its cast of supporting characters. Free from the weight of any context, their absurdity makes sense. Memorable ones include a deadpan lecturer nihilistic about the industry (hilariously portrayed by local celebrity Sheikh Haikel), and a socially inept teenager overly passionate about his work. It is only when ridiculous moments are used to exaggerate stereotypes where the series hits its marks.

These high moments, however, would require some patience to reach. Its plot points are about as mixed as its humour. Central to Sarah’s story is her finding herself part of a Mean Girls-esque group of popular girls, splintering herself further from her mother – we all know where it all goes from there. On the flip side, her father’s side plot of facing retrenchment and unemployment delicately infuses light-heartedness without taking away from the stress of the situation. It is with his side escapades and how it might link to the central story that would have me back for more. 

Technical wise, the series is shot much like a skit. Armed with fast cuts and kooky dissolves, the style is easy-going and helps bring out the script’s tone. Where its technical aspects faltered is with the series’s use of music. Awkward moments are met with clumsy horn blares. Cartoonish moments are met with equally outlandish sound effects. These pairings felt unnecessary and stifling, leaving little room for the performances to breathe.

Classmates has a knack for humour but its scattershot approach might be too much for some. Those looking for nostalgia will probably be disappointed as well – at least speaking as someone from the same course and school. However, the series does succeed in showing polytechnic days as fun and vibrant enough – albeit drenched in implausibility – that could prove to be engaging for teengers yet to experience that period for themselves. 

Nevertheless, each episode of Classmates is presented in bite-sized portions perfect for anyone to dip into. There are more than a few surprising highlights peppered in each to follow the series to its end.

Classmates is now available for streaming on meWATCH.

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