You know something’s amiss from the start. There’s something benign about the secondary school classroom setting, something pedestrian about the participants that makes your antenna immediately go up.
The presence of the actor Alan Cumming is the second indication. Everyone else sitting before the camera looks like a normal human being—an average Joe capable of playing no one other than themself. Cumming, on the other hand, has a presence. There’s a way actors can look directly into the camera that can make you look past the obvious. And My Old School is all about looking past the obvious.
Cumming isn’t the only actor in My Old School, the new documentary from Jono McLeod, but he might be the only one you recognize. Cumming is here because Brandon Lee—or is it Brian Mackinnon?—doesn’t want to sit for an on-camera interview. Lee agreed to an audio one, so McLeod called Cumming to lip-sync Lee’s side of the story. The words you hear are from Lee, but the facial tics and the mesmerizing eyes are courtesy Cumming. It feels like faint praise to say this might be one of Cumming’s best performances, but it is.
My Old School is all about performances. I’m dancing here, mainly because I don’t want to give anything away. Neither the story nor the players. And certainly not why McLeod wants to tell it.
Cumming isn’t the only thing filling in McLeod’s missing pieces. When one of the dozen interviewees recounts a story, McLeod and Rory Lowe use animation to illustrate the past tense. The animation design exists somewhere between Archie comics and the MTV show Daria—period-appropriate references both.
Here’s what I will say: My Old School is a documentary by way of investigation. The main character, Lee, arrives at the Bearsden Academy in the posh part of Glasgow, Scotland, in the middle of the term. He doesn’t immediately make friends, but he does integrate himself into the school, first as a friend, then as a brainiac, finally as the lead performer in the school’s production of South Pacific. Everyone seems to like Lee, particularly a couple of the outcasts. One, Brian, because he has terrible taste in music; the other, Stefan, because he’s Black in a predominantly white school. Their interviews kind of break your heart once you learn what’s really going on. The others, particularly one of Lee’s teachers and the girl who starred opposite him in South Pacific, raise a slew of ethical questions.
It’s those questions that make Lee’s story so damn fascinating. So much so that it was a major news story in the mid-’90s. A movie—titled Younger Than Springtime—was even set to film. And who was cast to play Lee in this fictitious retelling of a phenomenal fact? Why Alan Cumming, of course.
That movie never came to be, but My Old School did. I can’t imagine this story told any better than the way McLeod does. Some things you gotta see to believe—especially when they’re true.
My Old School (2022)
Written and directed by Jono McLeod
Produced by John Archer, Olivia Lichtenstein
Starring: Alan Cumming
Magnolia Pictures, Not rated, Running time 104 minutes, Premiered Jan. 23, 2022 at the Sundance Film Festival.
The above review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 30, No. 3, “Stories we tell.”
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