‘My Old School’ Film Review: Scottish High-School Documentary Is Enjoyably Odd – for a While

In the world of nonfiction filmmaking, it’s not uncommon for a documentary to be acclaimed for how interesting the story is rather than for how accomplished the storytelling is; a crazy, fascinating tale can sometimes seem like a great doc even if it’s a routine piece of work.

And then there’s “My Old School,”It flipped the equation when it was premiered at Sundance Film Festival on Sunday. Director Jono McLeod’s filmmaking itself is inventive and odd, and that’s Nearly enough – emphasis on the word almost – to make up for the fact that the story itself is something of a letdown.

The film is a classic, unreliable-narrator documentary that’s always entertaining to watch. But unlike, say, Ramin Bahrani’s “2nd Chance” — a 2022 Sundance doc that is intricately constructed to take the viewer through the twists and evasions doled out by its own unreliable narrator — “My Old School”It is a challenge to bring a unique spin to a story, whose surprises are clearly telegraphed right from the start.

It gets off to a promising start, as we see actor Alan Cumming sitting down at a desk in a Scottish classroom, with titles letting us in on the film’s central conceit: “The man at the heart of this story does not want to show his face, but you will hear his voice. The audio interview he granted will be lip synced by an actor.”

Brandon Lee tells us the story of his time at Bearsden Academy in the early 1990s. This secondary school is located in an upper-class area of Glasgow, Scotland. Cumming sits down and speaks the words with a wit and humor that are both uncannily true and entertaining. (It calls to mind Taghi Amirani’s 2019 documentary “Coup 53,”Ralph Fiennes was captured reading the transcript of an interview he had with a British intelligence agent after the video of the interview mysteriously disappeared. But that performance was a lot more serious and not nearly as playful as Cumming’s, though Fiennes did clearly have fun with it.)

Brandon’s story is an unusual one: He grew up in Canada but spent much of his childhood traveling the world with his opera-singing mother. He arrived in Bearsden only after his parents had died. His grandmother was left behind in Glasgow. He didn’t have many social skills and he looked older than his 16-year-old classmates, but he turned out to be a brilliant student who seemed to be inexorably bound for medical school.

McLeod was himself a student at Bearsden at the time that Brandon was starring in the school’s production of “South Pacific”His biology and literature teachers were blown away by his insight and knowledge. The director’s method of telling the story is basically in three parts: Cumming lip syncs the interview, other classmates sit at school desks and share their own memories of Brandon, and the memories are illustrated in bright animated sequences that run throughout the film.

The oddities begin to add up, and before long Brandon’s story becomes less and less convincing. The tricky thing is that the first and biggest revelation has seemed fairly obvious since the film’s opening moments, and there aren’t a lot of twists beyond that. The story gets weirder as it goes along, but only incrementally, and it’s all more or less variations on a theme.

It all probably feels like a big, wild story to the people who were in the thick of it at the time – which is to say, the filmmaker and his interview subjects – but it’s hardly monumental for people without a personal connection, and it wears pretty thin over the course of an hour and 44 minutes.

The trials of high school life are universal. However, the film is original and stylish enough to be entertaining. Cumming’s creepily spot-on job of lip syncing is a weird little marvel all by itself – even if watching him reproduce every stammer, chuckle and pause can distract you from what he’s actually saying.   

Things even get a little touching toward the end when one of Brandon’s school friends asks, “What is a person?” and a montage using school photos of cast and crew members plays over a spiky new version of Steely Dan’s 1973 song “My Old School” sung by none other than the ’60s pop chanteuse Lulu (best known for a different school movie and song, 1967’s “To Sir With Love”).

Steely Dan’s song has a chorus that ends. “I’m never going back to my old school” – but going back is, of course, exactly what “My Old School”Does, for better or worse.  

“My Old School”It will be shown for the first time at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

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