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Cultivating Young Minds: School Life

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By Elias Savada.

In the quaint, historic town of Kells in County Meath, home to Ireland’s only independent documentary film festival, it seems rather fitting that this is also the locale of School Life, a year-in-the-life exploration of Headfort School, a unique, unconventional primary-age boarding school. This 18th-century estate is where Neil Jordan filmed The Butcher Boy 20 years ago, and the grounds might remind you of Downton Abbey from a distance. Up close, you won’t find the upper crust of society and their devoted or conniving wait staff. Instead there’s John and Amanda Leyden, the long-married, husband and wife team who have been at the helm of this learning experience for almost 50 years, steering their teachers as they shape the minds of many thankful youngsters (and their parents). The dozens of matriculating students in the new (2014?) pre-teen (7- to 13-year-old) crop hail from across Europe and beyond (France, Russia, South Korea, Spain, Tanzania, even a couple of boys from the USA), as well as a sturdy dose of kids from Irish provinces like Ulster, Munster, and Leinster. (Is that a law firm?)

The film’s title has been changed by distributor Magnolia Pictures, which bought U.S. rights after the film had its premiere here as In loco parentis at the Sundance Film Festival last January. Maybe the company’s executives are afraid that folks, outside the arthouse audiences it is aimed at, might be challenged with Latin idiom. That didn’t bother the folks who released Ex Machina.

The world of embedded, fly-on-the-wall cinema is a one that can pass or fail if a filmmaker takes the wrong approach to his or her subject. In the case of School Life, the low-key, cozy vision by Neasa Ní Chianáin (as director and cinematographer), with a huge helping hand from co-director, producer, and sound recordist David Rane, is snipped, yet subtle. Compressing a full year of school required Ní Chianáin and Rane to construct their story with a bit of economic editing (by Mirjam Strugalla). Many scenes are cut as Kelly Reichardt might, forcing viewers into drawing some conclusions on their own. It was more a result of limitations that greeted the two filmmakers, who shot the movie themselves after allowing the school to acclimate to their presence. Still, the modest result does have more than a few uplifting moments, including some more likely found in School of Rock.

Both Leydens are portrayed with a casual, affectionate whimsy. Sneaking smokes throughout the film, John and Amanda at one point consider escaping from the school’s chains they have enjoyed for half a century. Just some fantasy playing on their part. Perhaps a little farmhouse for them to relax in, although John’s not convinced they would revel in a new state of nothingness, “We’d sit around all day doing less and less, and getting more decrepit.” You’ve got to love their gallows humor.

One day’s small moment might cover Amanda, who specializes in English literature, talking about somber 17th-century executions before breaking into excitement. “Everybody went, if they could? They all loved it!” That would segue into the term’s dramatic project: a production of Hamlet, under Amanda’s determined, academically rousing direction.

Whether talking about religion or homosexuality or reading from The Famous Five, a series of 21 mystery adventure novels written by Enid Blyton, you sense that everyone is gaining enlightenment in any class, gathering, or extra-curricular adventure, the latter including sport and fort (as in building them in the nearby woods a la Lord of the Flies, minus the book’s dark politics).

John’s favorite hideaway is a messy music room, where he waits for the youngsters. They might arrive wanting to clean the place up or do some painting over the oodles of graffiti, but he wants to take their talented and not-so-talented abilities and mold them into new modes of expression. Music is a big part of the curriculum.

Several of the students become bit players, including Eliza Somerville, a sad, solitary girl with long-hair and rosy cheeks, who is not adjusting well. Will her constant frown ever turn to a smile? Will her teachers and dormitory mates break her out of her dour shell? Will the filmmakers capture that moment, if it happens? There’s also Florrie, a late arrival in the year, having escalating adjustment and confidence issues.

School Life serves as an intimate all-access pass to a rustic piece of Irish heaven. Ní Chianáin and Rane offer a simple yet soothing salve which shows how an educational experience can provide worldly experience and confidence building.

Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He served as an executive producer on the 2015 horror film German Angst, Penny Lane’s award-winning documentary Nuts!, and the forthcoming supernatural thriller Ayla. He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2017 by Centipede Press).

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