Review: My Old School
- Alan Cumming lip-synchs the subject of one of the most bizarre stories in recent history in Jono McLeod's debut feature-length animated documentary
Brandon Lee famously died during the filming of The Crow in March 1993. Just a month later, a 16-year-old Brandon Lee enrolled in the Bearsden Academy, a Glasgow secondary school. Among the students in his class was Jono McLeod, the director of My Old School, which has just world-premiered in Sundance's Premieres section.
If you think this initial coincidence (or is it?) is curious, you are bound to be surprised – no, literally flabbergasted – by this story that could scarcely remain a secret in the UK in the 1990s but which got much less coverage in the rest of the world. McLeod's film arrives with a welcome historical distance as it tells this local yet surprisingly universal story.
The director combines interviews with Brandon's former classmates, sitting behind desks in a classroom, and animated re-enactments, and as for the subject of the documentary, he agreed to give an interview but did not want to appear on camera – though he is seen in archive footage in the final part of the film. As a result, Alan Cumming is filmed lip-synching to the recording, and this is executed with an uncanny precision, complemented by a physical resemblance that the actor has with Brandon.
McLeod patiently lays down the social background of 1990s Glasgow, and introduces the school and his classmates with undeniable affection. When Brandon first arrives, both the students and the staff (including the iron-fisted teacher Mrs Humes, voiced by 1960s pop star Lulu) feel that something is off, but no one can quite put their finger on it. Brandon looks older than his peers (they call him "thirtysomething") and has an unexpected degree of knowledge for his age and a Canadian accent. His story is that he was tutored privately while living in Canada, and his mother, who had recently died in a car crash, was an opera singer who would take him on her tours around the world. When his father dies, he seems oddly unfazed, his physics teacher recalls.
With time, Brandon turns from a geeky outsider into one of the most popular boys at Bearsden, not least because of his stellar turn in the school production of South Pacific – the ending of which provides the film with one of its most bizarre and queasy moments. His popularity doesn't wane, and he gets invited to go on holiday with the poshest girl in school – where his secret is finally revealed, with several additional twists and turns.
The humorous vibe supported by the 1990s music and animation style (McLeod cites MTV's Daria as a key influence) and fast-paced editing, as well as the bounciness of the interviewees’ Glaswegian accent and their playfulness and openness, gradually gives way to a darker atmosphere. The feeling one is left with is a strange kind of sadness, even pity, but the sheer weirdness of the protagonist prevents empathy or compassion. In the end, My Old School is a unique account of identity, deceit and unhealthy ambition, even though these three aspects do not necessarily come from the same place, making it all the more complex and perplexing.
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