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I was in my first year of high school when Hating Alison Ashley came out. I went to class every day with obnoxiously gelled hair, and whatever piece of “cool” surf store jewellery I could get away with wearing under my clothes. It was autumn 2005, the perfect time for Delta Goodrem to appear in a feature film. Her star was arguably shining at its brightest. She’d released two hit albums and won the attention of a nation with her doe-eyed, proto-Taylor Swift shtick. Her public struggles, including a battle with cancer, rallied the entirety of Australia to adopt her as the prodigal daughter. By 2005, Delta was Australia’s peak symbol of feminine perfection, so it wasn’t much of a jump when Hating Alison Ashley cast her as its “pretty girl,” the film’s axis for affluence, for images of affluence – even if the character she fronted had issues bubbling under the surface.
Hating Alison Ashley was designed to be an Australian analogue to Mean Girls, the surprise-hit Lindsay Lohan/Tina Fey vehicle released the year prior. Like Mean Girls, which eventually became the canonical high school bullying film, Hating Alison Ashley provided audiences with an insight into the ‘real world’ of Australian high schools and schooling culture, and gave insight into the cruelty of teen girls. Unlike Mean Girls, however, the Australian version received dire reviews and very quickly dissipated from the Australian cultural mindset.
Even though Australia had Delta Fever, she didn’t get the movie’s lead role. Saskia Burmeister played Hating Alison Ashley’s everywoman protagonist, Erica Yurken. As a high achiever at a low income rowdy public school (depicted so elaborately and outrageously that it goes far beyond stereotypes) she faces no competition and easily gets ahead in every class. It’s when Goodrem’s Alison shows up with blonde hair and a spotless uniform, that problems start to arise. Erica is enthralled, sensing that she could finally find a peer. When Alison starts rejecting Erica and siding with her crush, Erica flips. Because Hating Alison Ashley is one of those teen movies with a first person narrator walking you through every tiny turn, you get to track the feelings and reactions of the Erica as she sizes up Alison and realises where they both stand in the wilderness of rural public school.
The film is a sly pastiche of Australian cinema and entertains far beyond its intention. The crassness of the public school in comparison to Alison’s upstate, expensive (empty, Melbournesque) home is so stark that it's almost hyperreal. When I was young, I could never figure out why American film and TV could seriously represent the actors feelings and create emotional intensity while still keeping you engaged, and why Australian film was so predicated on absurdity instead. But that detachment works as a vehicle of discomfort, to reveal how preposterous and laughable our national class divide can be sometimes. Hating Alison Ashley shows an outsized version of Australian social inequality, where public schools and private schools determine the value and quality of a teenager’s life, and the attention and opportunities given to young people are unevenly distributed.
While sadly it failed at the box office, the movie was clearly intended as a Delta Goodrem career vehicle in the same way Crossroads was for Britney or Desperately Seeking Susan was for Madonna: a tactical branding exercise where the character they play is so closely tied to the singer’s image that not even the audience is fooled. It’s also a time capsule: a perfect example of how devastatingly kitsch Australian film and TV was at the time. It’s technically on par with the kind of surreal, enjoyably over-wrought cringe of Round the Twist. You’d hope John Waters has seen Hating Alison Ashley, because it's like Hairspray,remade by someone who didn’t realise the original was satire. Every Supre-inspired outfit worn by the schoolgirls in the movie pulls me back into the summer of 2005 in the best (or worst) way possible.
Like other delightful instances of Australian camp, Looking for Alibrandi arguably acts as a template of sorts for Hating Alison Ashley –– but then again, Alibrandi is more explicitly a drama, using the emotional heft of the characters anxieties and neuroses to drive a narrative about cultural divides and belonging. Hating Alison Ashley chooses to use comedy instead to illustrate the often nonsensical competition between girls, and how they are baited to fight over the attention of teachers, boys, and parents. Erica’s inner dialogue is petty and excellent, transposing her preconceptions onto Alison, ruefully coming up with paranoid interpretations of how she must really think. Even though the movie shows this in all it's ridiculousness, it's still undeniably true to the way we experience high school, how we tantrum and self-victimise as adolescents, how we retreat entirely into our own heads for comfort when the real world doesn't match our expectations.
Hating Alison Ashley’s key appeal in 2018 is in its power as a time capsule of the 2000s, of a hyperspecific view into the concerns and anxieties of suburban teens in Australia. It’s a surprising insight into the low-stakes atmosphere of Australian schooling, where opportunities are lacking and larrikinism rules playgrounds and classrooms. Erica wants the best for herself, has dreams and aspirations that reach beyond her Victorian suburban context, but is viscerally reminded of their futility every time she returns home to the reality of her ramshackle family house. Although her family is supportive of her, she feels misunderstood, unable to reconcile how impossible her dreams seem in comparison to her reality. In a way, Alison is living proof of how things might have otherwise been, and Erica’s jealousy is a force unable to be kept down. It’s an insight into the Australian paradox: happy to be neighbourly, but devastatingly misunderstanding of difference as soon as it runs contrary to our expectations.
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