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Chris Lilley's juvenile justice role model


For several years I did volunteer work at a residential centre for young male offenders. During that time I had plenty of opportunities to witness the various authoritative styles of the workers. Some were clearly less effective than others. The worst among them would resort to yelling and threats and finger wagging at the first sign of trouble. Needless to say this often led to escalation. 

I do not underestimate the stress these workers were under, and many of them seemed for the most part to be adequate for the role. But during those years I did meet the rare special breed of worker. Irreverent enough to be their charges' friend. Authoritative enough to demand respect. Compassionate enough to earn real affection. It’s these people that I thought of when I first met ‘Gran’.

Gran is an impressive addition to Australian comedian Chris Lilley’s gallery of lovable misfits. One of the stars of Lilley's latest series Angry Boys on ABC1, Gran, a worker at a residential centre for young offenders, is an exaggerated version of these de facto parental figures. She encapsulates Lilley’s greatest strengths as a writer and performer; he captures her humanity while gently taking the piss.

Lilley has been called a one trick pony. Angry Boys, like his previous series, We Can Be Heroes and Summer Heights High, is notable for its mockumentary style and for Lilley’s appearance as multiple lead characters. But it’s unfair to call it a rehash. Each series adds to the gallery of characters. Each character is thoroughly researched and lovingly portrayed, and their humanity upheld.

Gran is a case in point. It’s true that the first episode dwells on her casual racism towards the boys. For a football scratch match she divides them into teams based on skin colour (to one boy who misunderstands the instruction: 'I know you're an Aborigine but you're a pale skin'), and yells racist epithets from the sidelines. This seemed like a grab for cheap nasty laughs.

The episode ended, however, with Gran comforting a boy with hugs and tissues as he sobbed violently, perhaps missing his own family and his life and friends on the outside. The boys have made bad life choices, Gran says in voiceover, but 'they're still boys'. This reveals more of Gran's true nature than do the comedic elements of the character. 

To end the episode in such a moving way is a statement of Lilley's purpose. He differs from other lowbrow satirists such as The Chaser. Their humour is often marked by nastiness. Lilley's is always marked by warmth.

Angry Boys also sees the return of two of Lilley’s most brilliant creations, garrulous country boy Daniel and his taciturn twin Nathan, who is partially deaf and (according to Daniel) 'a bit spastic'. (The two previously appeared in Lilley’s superb first series We Can Be Heroes.) 

Both portrayed by Lilley and allowed to share space on screen thanks to some clever editing and direction, Daniel and Nathan, like Gran, epitomise Lilley’s ability to marry lowbrow humour to genuine pathos. Daniel often loudly, cruelly taunts Nathan, but clearly loves him. Nathan in turn is surly and resentful, but only because he quietly adores Daniel.

In Angry Boys the twins are faced with the prospect of separation, as Nathan, due to recurring behavioral difficulties, is to be sent to a school for young deaf people in the big city. The various ways Daniel has tried to repress with bravado his fear and sorrow over this impending separation has been one of the series' most poignant elements and is no doubt building to an emotional climax.

It's impossible to judge Angry Boys definitively midway through the series. New characters such as foul mouthed and child-like American rapper S.Mouse, and washed up ex-surfer Blake Oakfield, whose claim to fame is that he had his testicles shot off in a bar fight, seem lowbrow creations in the extreme. 

But it is a mark of Lilley's work that his characters follow arcs over the course of a series, so that the consequences of their actions or external factors beyond their control force some degree of growth or maturity, or to expose to the audience an element of their humanity previously unglimpsed. There are promising signs and much hope for Angry Boys yet. 

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. He is a contributor to Kidzone, Inside Film and The Big Issue, and his articles and reviews have appeared in Melbourne's The Age and Brisbane's Courier-Mail. Follow Tim on Twitter 

Topic tags: Angry Boys, Gran, Chris Lilley, juvenile justice, young offenders, Chaser



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Existing comments

Thanks for your review, Tim. I've been skeptical about the merits of Angry Boys but you've made me reconsider. (By the way, the juxtaposition of this mockumentary with the documentary Outback Kids on ABC makes interesting viewing).

Fatima | 02 June 2011  

Sorry I really don't agree. Pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable seems to me an ego trip and it lowers the standard of what is seen as normal by the community. As a former teacher of students with disabilities I knwo the distress this sort of program causes parents and students alike. Just see how easily the derogatory tag 'gay' entered the school playground in spite of all the education that we had been doing on that issue.

Pauline Small | 02 June 2011  

Angry Boys allows unfiltered views of modern culture and the ethics/morals young boys are faced with.Art reflects life and is often uncomfortable.Far more uncomfortable are the lives of many young boys; homeless because their efforts to become mature men flounder and cause trouble. Lilley highlights stupid role-modelling as well as the need for nurture and love from both masculine and feminine adults.

It is no wonder boys are angry.

catherine | 02 June 2011  

"...Lilley’s ability to marry lowbrow humour to genuine pathos"- well put; a great piece, tim. rather like south park, lilley conveys incredibly powerful reflections on our society in the guise of puerile humour; those not willing to accept that comedy shows may well contain serious content get hung up on the poo jokes and miss the point entirely.

louise | 03 June 2011  

"De gustibus non disputandum" goes the saying, and since we all bring to the viewing of anything our own filters and eperience etc. we don't have to be too dogmatic about a thing like Angry Boys. But my own reaction was that halfway through the second episode I switched off. I appreciated that Lilley was taking the p- out of a range of things but honestly, I thought it lacked the greater subtleties of 'We can be Heroes' and I just couldn't stand the swearing: I thought he was bludgeoning his satire to death. So his attempt to satirise failed for me.

Stephen Kellett | 04 June 2011  

It is not worthy of a publication with any pretensions of quality like Eureka Street to take Lilley's pretensions so seriously. This show is not about juvenile justice. It's about juvenile humour. And I think it would be obvious to most reasonable adults that the joke is on Eureka Street for trying to argue otherwise.

Jack Fawkner | 14 June 2011  

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