My Old School got a standing ovation – and too bloody right! Absolutely cracking movie.
It is a documentary about the Brandon Lee incident, when a 32-year-old man enrolled in secondary school as a 16-year-old boy. The reasons why are as bizarre as the story itself, but what makes the movie is it is not just a tale about one sad and slightly strange figure trying capture a part of life that escaped him, but an ensemble memoir of this odd event by the pupils who lived it. The film is a bit of a high school reunion, with people retelling stories, and misremembering, and being corrected and cajoled by their mates. It’s also fucking hilarious.
So it’s the 1990s, and this new kid shows up. He’s looks about ten years older than everyone but he’s Canadian, so folk figure, they must mature earlier or whatever. He sits his tests, makes friends, does homework with the other kids after class, and stars in the school show. He’s a bit weird, but it’s secondary school, everyone’s a bit weird. And he seems sound.
He has this long back story about travelling all over the world with his opera singer mother, until she died in a tragic accident. His father was a professor who wanted him educated, but had no desire to raise him, so sent him to live with his grandmother in Glasgow, and enrolled him in Bearsden Academy.
The film pays particular attention to the role of class in all this. Anyone from here will know Bearsden is the poshest place in Glasgow. You go along the road out Bearsden until you get to Drumchapel, and the average life expectancy drops by a decade. Your postcode can make Glasgow a very different city for you. Many of the ex-pupils interviewed came from Spam Valley, the part of Bearsden which was a little more downmarket, and got its name from the saying that the folk who moved there ate spam every night of the week just to be able to afford to live in Bearsden. People wanted in because it signalled an opening up of opportunity to them and their kids, a different kind of life. The filmmaker, in the Q&A admits he and his sister only moved to Bearsden Academy after his sister was hospitalised due to the violence at Clydebank Secondary. Similarly, Brandon’s family had wanted the same.
Because his mother wasn’t an opera singer, his father wasn’t a professor. His dad was a lollipop man and his mother worked in the old folks’ home. Whether the belief had come from him or his mother, the narrative got passed back and forth between them until it was gospel – she could have been a doctor if only she’d had the opportunity, and he WOULD be a doctor. She moved into a rented flat in Bearsden to ensure he got the best education, and he excelled academically.
But he had no friends, no social life, no real connections outside his mother. He went to Glasgow Uni and, without any support system and under pressure to complete this supposed destiny of medicine, he had a breakdown of sorts. He doesn’t describe it as such, focusing on his bodily symptoms, but as someone who also took a breakdown in her first year at Glasgow Uni, it’s readily identifiable.
After feeling lost for a number of years, he eventually tried to re-enroll, only to discover he was now considered too old. 30 was the age limit for commencing study in medicine, due to the number of years it took to complete, so what’s a man to do? Let it go? Change your mind? Pursue a different career?
Brandon Lee re-enrolled in school, resetting the clock back to the last time he had been a high achiever. He went back as a 16-year-old to sit his secondary exams again.
What’s batshit bananas is he did it at his old school, the one he went to the first time. And, and, AND was taught by some of the same teachers who taught him first go around. That’s barmy!
So the film is structured around Brandon’s story. He gives an audio interview but doesn’t want his face to be shown, so it is played/lipsynced by Alan Cumming (yum!). But, as I say, it’s not just about him. A bunch of his classmates give interviews, and you see them trying to piece together the puzzle, try to separate the rumour from the truth. Which is great, coz you get them retelling different stories or retelling the same story different ways, and it’s all animated.
I really loved the animation style. As soon as I saw it, I said, “Daria!” and in the Q&A the director said that was his inspiration. Because the story was full of those classic 90s high school tropes – the mean girls, the bullies, the outsiders, the music geeks. When I first saw the animation in the trailer, I was a bit like, hmm, dunno what I think of that. But it really works.
And the voice acting is great, with Alan, Lulu, and Clare Grogan. And the music is ace, from Shelly Poole, of 90s iconic band Alisha’s Attic. Everything comes together really well, it’s just superb.
When asked in the Q&A, why he didn’t notice that Brandon Lee was hiding the fact he was a 32-year-old-man, the filmmaker said, because he was too busy hiding the fact he was a 16-year-old gay boy. I think that does explain a lot of it. Brandon hid in a place where everyone was hiding, he was odd and awkward in a place where everyone was odd and awkward – and he did it in Glasgow, where everything’s mad anyway.
In another city, a documentary like this might be framed with ominous tones and fades to black-and-white. In Glasgow, it’s just one big lol. A fucking cracking watch, go see!