One’s preteen years can be one hell of a rollercoaster ride. It seems to be a never-ending blitzkrieg of drama, turmoil, and concurrently, excitement. From the onslaught of new emotions to the increasingly un-ignorable importance of social status, being a whippersnapper that is transitioning from childhood to adolescence can be an awkward, uncomfortable, and hellish experience. But all of that can be made better with the presence and guidance of a kind, empathetic, and nurturing school teacher.
School Life (or in loco parentis, as it was originally touted during its successful festival runs) provides viewers with a glimpse of the esoteric world of elementary boarding schools, where children ages 7 to 13 live, study, eat, and play at the expansive 18th century Victorian mansion grounds, home to the Headfort School. It’s a simple enough premise, one in which a narrative does not naturally unfold. Instead, directors Neasa Ní Chianáin and David Rane choose to point their attention at a subject that is inherently interesting. And no, it isn’t the children, the policies, or even the high-brow sociocultural environment surrounding the exclusive Headfort School. Instead, Chianáin and Rane decide to focus their attention on the Leydens, a married couple who have taught at the school for over forty years.
With his wildly unkempt hair, worn “jumper” (that’s sweater for all you Americans), and idiosyncratic eccentricities, John Leyden is one of two of the most interesting characters roaming the Hogwartian grounds of Headfort. The other is Amanda Leyden, his wily, dog-loving, poetry-obsessed wife with whom he shares a quaint cottage with not far from the school. While they may seem stereotypically British at times with their wry, soft-spoken, and removed approach, what emerges is a couple who are unashamedly empathetic, taking time out of their personal lives to discuss and invest in the wellbeing of their pupils.
Whether it John’s constant encouragement of Florence (a new student) to play in the afterschool band, or the delight they both feel when seeing the shy and whip-smart Eliza finally emerging from her shell, the Leydens are a charming remnant of old-school British schooling. They are firm, stoic, and yet loving and encouraging. They smoke cigarettes and discuss the childrens’ progress. They put the kids to bed and are invested in their futures. The Leydens are the kind of teachers that truly are in loco parentis. They are indeed in place of the parent.
But while School Life is a refreshingly uplifting narrative, it is marred by the fact that it seldom really has one. There is no catalytic event, no dramatic shake-ups. It seldom has any events that makes one sit on the edge of their seat, save for a few nostalgic moments in which social drama pervades even the personal lives of the Leydens. Nonetheless, School Life provides a warm sense of humanity and empathy, making one inadvertently smile at a student’s social and educational successes. Coupled with Chianáin and Rane’s vérité approach, what materializes is a film that is not concerned with providing a scathing or revealing documentary. Instead, Chianáin and Rane just let the camera roll, picking up everything and anything that occurs in the halls and grounds of the expansive Headfort School.
Verdict: 4 out of 5
Chianáin and Rane’s School Life is a wonderfully esoteric documentary. It’s charming, beguiling, eye-opening and touching in its portrayal of a deeply caring teaching staff. And yet, it is also a narrowly focused film that rarely ventures into new, unexplored areas. But thanks to the Leydens’ inherently interesting presence, School Life is a documentarian success, harkening back to the days of the Maysles brothers, D.A. Pennebaker, William Greaves, Frederick Wiseman with its fly-on-the-wall approach. It’s the kind of documentary that makes you wonder whether Chianáin and Rane could continue in the footsteps of the vérité giants and continue to find intrinsically fascinating subjects to focus on. Here’s to hoping that they do, for School Life is but a fraction of what these talented directors have the capabilities to explore.