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Film Review: My Old School

26 July 22 words: Sam Marshall

In an age where thrill-a-minute scandal content is available everywhere, this heartfelt and authentic doc stands out…

Director: Jono McLeod
Starring: Alan Cumming, Lulu, Clare Grogan
Running time: 105 minutes 

It’s 1995 in the well-off Glasgow Suburb of Bearsden, and a new pupil arrives at the local secondary school. Brandon Lee is immediately an object of intrigue – from his North American accent to his absent mother who is apparently a successful opera singer. Brandon’s intelligence shines and his popularity grows throughout the school year, until a summer holiday incident begins to untangle the truth about the mysterious new pupil. 

That’s as much plot as you’re getting. If you don’t know the true story, any more will only spoil the enjoyment of watching it unfold – but in many ways, it’s not just the twists and turns of the plot that make this an entertaining and thought-provoking watch. Director Jono McLeod was a classmate of Brandon Lee’s, and his personal touch shines charmingly through the often troubling events. 

McLeod calls on his old schoolmates and teachers to recall events as they played out. Not only does this mean we experience the story as they did, it also adds another layer to the narrative. Pairs of old friends laugh together during interviews, reminiscing about the quirks of their high school days and sharing in the absurdity of the scandal’s events. We even see one pair slapping each other with a ruler, like misbehaving teenagers in the back of a class. 

This authenticity gives us intimate insights into the scandal that might otherwise feel forced, and provides a smile-inducing foil to the deception at the heart of this story. Even Brandon Lee, who would only allow audio recording for the film, is afforded a level of authenticity: Alan Cumming is given the task of lip-syncing Lee’s responses, one that he rises to with his trademark subtlety. 

Cumming was originally slated to play Brandon Lee in a dramatic adaptation of the scandal, and it’s clear why; in his hands, this mysterious figure has not just a voice, but a proper character revealed through expressions and idiosyncrasies. 

With its clever stylistic choices, My Old School becomes more than just a personal look into the events of a scandal. It’s also a nuanced exploration of perception and memory; how we imagine the past, each other, and ourselves.

McLeod recognises the small size of his story, and works hard to establish a connection between the audience and those closest to the events

The fallout of the 1995 scandal, and the events leading up to it, are shown through animation, in a cartoon style that echoes kids’ TV of the time – most clearly MTV’s Daria. In this animated world, all the fantasies and half-rememberings of the interviewees are brought to life. Whether it’s the school headmaster appearing as Batman in his academic cape, or Brandon Lee’s insistence that he has the ability to mesmerise people when he wants to, the cartoon past weaves the ex-pupils’ reminiscences into a kind of mythology. Through this lens, even the more disturbing events of the scandal become just another set of half-remembered, romanticised moments that took place at My Old School

It’s this intimate, nostalgic angle that keeps the film compelling, even when some of its punches fail to land. A couple of the story’s many twists and reveals don’t quite live up to the hype the filmmakers give them. That might be a ‘me’ problem – in the age of Tiger King, I’m used to super high stakes and large-scale conspiracies. On the other hand, I couldn’t help being a little disappointed at times when a piece of information turned out to be something more mundane than I’d been led to suspect. 

However, Jono McLeod recognises the small size of his story, and works hard to establish a connection between the audience and those closest to the events, in particular Brandon Lee himself. As he dances around his actions and motives, weaving between reality and fantasy, he invites us to look back on our own high school days and ask ourselves: what stories have we told about ourselves that might not be true? What lies might we be telling ourselves, even now, about who we are? 

An intriguing film that had me smiling and second-guessing right up to the final frame, My Old School won me over with its authentic charm and careful craft – and by managing to walk the line between documentary, drama and true crime podcast, it’s ensured that there’s no category of friend I won’t be recommending it to. 

Did you know? As the original Bearsden Academy was demolished years ago, the filmmakers built custom interview sets to resemble their old classrooms.

My Old School is in cinemas from Friday 19 August

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