Sunday, May 27th, 2018
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SCHOOL LIFE: Spend Two Hours Somewhere Better

School Life has heart, it has laughs, and it is hands down the feel good movie of the year. Go see it and take as many people as you can. 

Imagine your favorite teacher, the one with whom you connected, joked, and discussed topics beyond the classroom, whether personal or cultural. The teacher who made you fall in love with whatever it is you love and nurtured and supported you as you stumbled through the beginning stages. The teacher who defied your schema of what a teacher was and against whom all others would be compared. Now imagine a school filled with copies of that teacher. That is Headfort boarding school in Ireland, the subject of the new documentary School Life.

Co-directed by married filmmaking team Neasa Ni Chianáin and David RaneSchool Life utilizes an observational approach to document a year in this exceptional educational institution. That may not sound like the most riveting synopsis, but the film benefits largely from its principal subjects, John and Amanda Leyden, married teachers who have been at Headfort since the ’70s, and have tinged their curriculum with ample wit and warmth. Add to these spectacular subjects an excellent eye and thoughtful editing, and you get the most unexpectedly joyous film of the year.

A Classic Leading Man

School Life opens with Amanda and her dogs at the breakfast table. Before we see John we hear him making what we’ll find to be a trademark dry comment as he sits in his easy chair, framed by books and lighting a cigarette with the coolness you might expect from a Jarmusch character. Even at home their students are at the forefront of their minds; the film is punctuated by nicotine-fueled conversations of this child or that.

source: Magnolia Pictures

As Amanda heads into school for the day, the lush trees along the road from the Leydens’ house, coupled with the score, give the audience the sense of travelling to some sort of magical wonder school, maybe not unlike Hogwarts. Headfort is run by Durmot Dix, a future-fashion Marxist, who is able to hold assemblies in a room rather than an auditorium, with the teachers seated along the back wall. It’s this attention and intimacy that really sets Headfort apart; real relationships are formed here that aren’t possible in a school that puts students through the revolving door at 30 per class. They even have full faculty meetings to discuss each individual student.

But where the film really shines is in John’s interactions with his students. He displays the kind of self-confidence and wit that can only come from decades of both mastering your profession and being surrounded by people objectively less intelligent than you are. In some moments you can tell he’s had years to hone particular jokes or responses and it takes everything he has to conceal his absolute delight. For the viewer all these Leyden-isms will be fresh and hilarious; so much of my time spent watching School Life was time spent doubled over.

source: Magnolia Pictures

But there’s also a casualness to John’s manner of speaking to the children that is without condescension; it’s clear that he respects his students, even if he can sometimes be short with them or make a quip at their expense. The filmmakers were embedded at Headfort for two years and it shows, the faculty and students as subjects really do seem to have very little awareness of the camera as a result of its continual presence; School Life has a rare authenticity in that way. But John has spent decades more or less acting in the same play, so he’s keenly aware of the filmmakers, sometimes even playing to them for his sole benefit. But it’s ours as well, the man is a national treasure and an artist, his canvas education.

Filmmaking Shaped By Humanity

But the success of the film is far from the Leyden’s alone. Mirjam Strugalla‘s insightful editing gives the film its comedic rhythm and backbone. Reaction shots are expertly timed for the greatest effect and scenes often end at a comedic highpoint. Even Amanda’s description of wartime execution is lent comedic undertones when juxtaposed with the students’ various reactions, ranging from enraptured to indifferent. That’s not to say the editing in any way undermines the reality of the scenes, but it is of a perspective that recognizes that there’s much humor to be found in life’s mundanities.

source: Magnolia Pictures

Not to mention Strugalla had excellent material with which to work; Ní Chianáin‘s brilliant framing captures a spectacular array of emotions from subjects who tend to really show them on their faces. School Life relishes in quiet moments, like a boy being tapped on the shoulder in a hallway by some friends and fighting back a smile. A personal favorite of mine was the face one student would make trying desperately to keep the beat on an electric drumkit.  Chianáin also smartly places her camera at her subjects height level, and the effect is to put you right back in childhood, building forts with a lifetime of possibilities ahead.

I Just Really Love School Life

When Wiseman made High School, he was told that the school he documented was terrible. Others asked how they might get a school like that in their neighborhood. No one will have that issue with School Life. A school like Headfort is so utterly foreign to me as someone educated in the US public schools system; multiple times throughout the film a teacher or administrator would act exactly opposite how I would expect. Try being a teacher in some areas of the country and feeling comfortable saying to a student matter of factly “But George, we don’t know that god exists, we have no proof that there is such a thing as god”. It’s a revelation.

I can not recommend this movie enough. It has heart, it has laughs, and it is hands down the feel good movie of the year.  Go see it and take as many people as you can, then tell everyone who weaseled out of going how great it was so they go later. I’m going to buy the Bluray when it comes out so I can watch it as many times as I want until I die. It’s just really very good. And I know it’s an overused sentiment, and I know I already used it this year in relation to a documentary about street cats, but god damn it, the world just really needs this movie.

Late in the film John says of a pupil emerging from her almost cartoonish shyness “I wish you could bottle that and sell it.” Well Ní Chianáin and Rane have, and it’s called School Life. Go buy it.

Is it ok to enjoy anything this pure right now?

School Life expands its US theatrical release today, check the film’s website for screenings near you.

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Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.

Arlin is originally from Chicago, IL and currently resides in Oakland, CA. Receiving his BA in Film Studies in 2010, he is a failed rapper who works in film distribution. Among his non-cinematic interests are biking, playing basketball, record collecting, and breakfast cereal. He is still processing the new season of Twin Peaks and hopes one day that the world recognizes the many values of the Siesta system.

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