Film Review: School Life

There's no school like the old school.
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The pantheon of big-screen schoolteachers welcomes two offbeat new members via Neasa Ní Chianáin's delightful crowd-pleaser School Life. Ostensibly documenting a year in the life of Headfort School, a private establishment in Ireland, the Spanish co-production instead quickly reveals itself as an irresistibly admiring portrait of long-married couple John and Amanda Leyden, both staff members for over 40 years. Ní Chianáin and co-director David Rane (who also produces) make no attempts to reinvent the documentary wheel here, crafting a solid showcase for the charming idiosyncracies of their well-chosen, well-matched protagonists.

Headfort, a "boarding" (live-in) school founded in 1948 in a rambling 18th-century mansion 50 miles from Dublin, has dozens of such educators supervising its children, who range in age from seven to 13. The only ones who really register, however, are the Leydens: John teaches Latin and Math, and Amanda specializes in English literature.

Seemingly childless themselves, their brand of "parenting" is very much of the tough-love variety, the spiky pair treating all situations with bone-dry, cynical humor and ironic detachment. Their stated aim is to make their charges "balanced, independent, thoughtful." From this duo, John's "That actually wasn't too bad" during after-school band practice counts as glowing praise.

Such laid-back, bohemian pedagogy may bemuse North American audiences weaned on the more sentimentally inspirational likes of Dead Poets SocietyGood Will Hunting and the various iterations of Goodbye, Mr. Chips. But it's a valued part of a British tradition that stubbornly permeates many levels of the country's education system, both public and (especially) private.

That said, even within this context Headfort is something of an agreeable time warp—desks are of the Victorian-era hinged variety; a Jimi Hendrix mural looks down on the rag-tag music-practice room—possibly untouched by 21st-century neuroses and external concerns. Ireland has, of course, been de facto independent of the United Kingdom since 1922, but countless remnants of the old "Anglo-Irish" days remain; the Leydens' (audible) Britishness is never an issue, though nearly all their pupils are evidently Irish.

Only a small handful of these kids make very much impact in Mirjam Strugalla's edit: Academically gifted Eliza, boisterously good-natured Ted and the graceful sometime model Florence, whose arrival from London around the hour mark provides a minor spark of potential friction and drama.

But Ní Chianáin (best known for 2007's Fairytale of Kathmandu) and Rane keep things pretty low-key throughout, coasting from chuckle to belly laugh in a picture whose structure is as baggy and functional as the beige suits of the bespectacled headmaster—himself a not-so-long-ago graduate of this very establishment.

The directors adopt a largely fly-on-the-wall approach apart from very occasional straight-to-camera asides by John Leyden, a deep-dyed maverick who would doubtless dismiss composer Eryck Abecassis' standard-issue score with the derision it deserves.--The Hollywood Reporter

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