Sundance Review: Jono McLeod’s doc ‘My Old School’ threads a fine line between humor and pain, truth and lies [Grade: B]
Exactly a year removed from the premiere of the acclaimed documentary Flee at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, comes My Old School, another nonfiction film that uses animation and creative trickery to tell its story and to disguise its central figure. While My Old School is much less serious and its stakes far lower than Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s acclaimed documentary about the perils of refugee life, it does contain a central figure whose story prompts some interesting questions about ethics, perseverance, dishonesty and self-acceptance. But, considering its tone, the much more apt cinematic comparison for My Old School is not Flee at all, but Never Been Kissed, the 1999 Drew Barrymore comedy about an adult reporter who returns to high school for a story.
If it seems strange to compare a documentary to a silly ‘90s comedy that stretches the bounds of believability, that’s exactly the point of My Old School. Director Jono McLeod had a story he wanted to tell, one that is the stuff of legend in his hometown in Scotland, and it is stranger than fiction in many ways. It tells the story of Brandon Lee, a new student who came to Bearsden Academy in the affluent part of Glasgow in the early ‘90s. It took Brandon a little while to fit in, as he came from Canada, looked a little older and kept mostly to himself. But eventually, Brandon became a popular guy in school, starring in the school musical and making tons of friends. He was smart, too, so much so that he went off to medical school a year earlier than most do, as he wanted to be a doctor. Well, it turns out that Brandon was not what he appeared to be. No spoilers here, but the big reveal of his secrets—more than one—left the whole town stunned, making for a story everyone would be re-telling the rest of their lives.
And such is the central theme of My Old School, as it blends interviews with real students who went to school with Brandon with animation that recreates his story. As his former classmates re-tell the story from their perspective, the film also gives us Brandon’s side of things, but because the real Brandon didn’t want his face to be on camera, he is played by actor Alan Cumming, who lip-syncs to Brandon’s voiceover narration. It is odd and doesn’t completely work, but the distraction is minimal, and Cumming is always entertaining, even if you never hear his voice.
What is most entertaining, however, are Brandon’s old classmates, a lively, funny and engaging group of people who, for the most part, hold no animosity towards Brandon for his fraudulent behavior, instead, they reveal their overall bemusement at what he was able to pull off and seem less interested in how he did it in favor of why. The film eventually does unspool Brandon’s reasons and, in doing so, paints a sad picture of a person unwilling to accept how his life has turned out and goes to great lengths to get another chance at something that he failed at the first time. But mixed in with elements of obvious mental illness is the concept of being able to go back and re-do something in life. Don’t we all have something in life, some moment in our past we wish we could do over or try again? If so, what are the lengths we would go to do it? In the film Never Been Kissed, a woman has the chance to go back to high school and have the experience she couldn’t have the first time, and it was cute and endearing. My Old School shows that it is possible, but, in the end, it’s not cute and endearing, it’s actually kind of creepy and weird.
But My Old School’s tone makes it clear that creepy and weird are not how everyone remembers the story. Its lightheartedness reveals an amusement, even somewhat of an envy that someone was able to do something we all have dreamed of. But to what end? Where is the point in our lives when we accept our failures and when is the point where we have to stop pursuing our dreams? We are constantly told, it’s never too late. As My Old School reveals, that actually may be true after all.
This review is from the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
Photo courtesy of the Sundance Institute | Tommy Ga-Ken Wan