(Ireland, 99 min.)
Dir. Neasa Ní Chianáin, David Rane
It’s fall and the kids are back to school. For John and Amanda Leyden, the season brings about their 46th year at Headfort, an Irish boarding school for primary-aged students. Set in Headfort’s grand 18th century estate surrounded by sprawling lush woods and featuring a great cast of characters, this award-winning observational drops audiences into a few days in the life of a dying breed as the school approaches the end of its tenure and the teachers, like their students, face an uncertain future.
The Leydens have a fun and carefree style in which teaching seems like a pure pleasure. Don’t expect to see any sharp reprimands or cracks of the strap in School Life, since the John’s dry sarcasm disciplines the students with reprimands of “That wasn’t so bad” when they flub their work. (His politics as a social democrat, on the other hand, offer all sorts of humorous wry zingers.) The Leydens foster the students with an easygoing curriculum that emphasizes music just as much as math and English, so the class of Headfort gets a well-balanced meal of education and entertainment.
Jam sessions offer highlights of these school days as several young girls form a rock band under John’s guidance in the school’s funky student lounge. The girls’ aren’t aiming for A-level notes in flat and breathy covers of Rhianna and Ellie Goulding, but the music builds confidence and character behind the mic. Scenes in Amanda’s literary cave let other students show off their dramatic chops as they recite interpretations of Hamlet or read from the fine collection of dusty old books the schoolmarm has collected over the years.
Directors Neasa Ní Chianáin and David Rane bring their cameras in close proximity to the students, who don’t seem the least bit distracted by their presence. Fly on the wall glimpses into their lessons and extracurricular events let us watch the students come into their own as the Leydens nurture young minds in Headfort’s grand, welcoming home. The unhurried pace of School Life immerses us in the style and substance of the Leydens’ curriculum. The film never sets out the school’s mandate or mission statement and instead invites us to observe Headfort’s uniqueness and character by watching these students grow over the course of the year.
There’s no underdog tale to be found in this school film. There are no teachers playing Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society or Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds. Rather, the mom and pop shop character of the Leydens’ approach to education ensures that Headfort is a school as well as a home. It’s a cozy place of comfort in this sweet and astutely observed documentary.
School Life screens in Toronto at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema from Oct. 6-11.