School Life – movie review

School Life is a magical account of a small boarding school. It’s a place that really cares about its students and the outcome of their studies. I shed a few tears.

This observational documentary follows a year in the lives of two inspirational teachers at a boarding school in Ireland. Headfort is an institution not unlike Hogwarts (from Harry Potter), with its 18th century buildings, secret doors and magical woodlands. It’s been home to John and Amanda Leyden for 46 years, and served as a backdrop to their extraordinary careers.

For John, rock music is just another subject alongside Maths, English, Scripture and Latin. All are taught in a collaborative and often amusing fashion. A cellar is home to the school’s two rock bands. John nurtures a special kind of youth revolution that teaches responsibility and independence in equal measure. The students play pop or heavy metal, or whatever takes their fancy, because it’s their space.

For Amanda, the key to connecting with children is books. She uses any means to snare the young minds. Her lair is packed to the rafters with titles from every genre. The children are absorbed as she takes them on special journeys with fantastical characters from tales of all kinds.

Is Headfort an anachronism in this global world or a clever remake of the British public school model? It’s certainly a contradiction.

The school is presided over by a social democrat who eschews class in favour of achievement, but retains the links that connect the institution to the levers of power. It’s a skill the headmaster may have learnt from John Leyden, who taught him when he was a pupil at Headfort. jHe’s also produced a slew of other high achievers, now captains of industry, famous artists and academics.

For nearly half a century John and Amanda have shaped thousands of minds. But now the unthinkable looms: retirement. Headfort has been their life and passion. So, they’ve challenged the march of time by absorbing the endless supply of young ideas from their wards. Who will keep them young if they leave?

I greatly admired the “fly on the wall” approach of the filmmakers. Nothing was staged. The schoolchildren just got on with their lives while the camera rolled. The setting was magnificent, set in breathtakingly beautiful countryside.

It did feel like a throwback to a gentler time, where “respect” was the favoured menu item. You walk away knowing that these teachers and school have the right attitude. They can get the most out of the students by showing them how to grow and prosper.

The doco concentrates on a few pupils in particular. One who is brilliant, but painfully shy. Another has a learning impairment . The third, a young model, has gone from school to school and lacks confidence. We build an affinity with the students, teachers and the principal – a sure sign that the film has worked its way into our psyche.

Director and cinematographer Neasa Ni Chianain (The Stranger) and co-director and producer David Rane have crafted something special here.

Director: Neasa Ni Chianain
Release Date: 2 November 2017 (limited)
Rating: PG

Alex First

Other reviews you might enjoy: