School Life Review
Every school has an inspiring teacher, who demands their students dream big and follow their hearts, all while ensuring their passion for learning never wavers. But very few schools have teachers quite like Amanda and John Leyden, an elderly married couple who have been teaching at the same Irish boarding school for over 40 years, and who aim to get their diverse pupils involved in everything from reading and maths to latin and rock’n’roll.
Irish documentarian Neasa Ní Chianáin followed the couple for a year, as they look towards retirement, yet are still motivated by returning to the classroom every single day. Chianáin never intrudes on the pair’s educational motivations by needless interviews, nor overplays any scenes for maximum dramatic effect. School Life is purely a series of random highlights throughout an academic year, with nothing as deliberately attention grabbing as Channel 4’s “Educating…” series; even as we are seeing an idealised school environment, there isn’t a moment that doesn’t ring true.
This unobtrusive approach works wonders during many of the classroom sequences, many of which possess an off-the-cuff hilarity that is near impossible to script. In one stand out sequence, one of the older classes (the school caters for pupils aged between 7 and 12) is being taught about same sex marriage - an ethical debate which culminates in an unintentional punchline that could only conceivably come from a child’s mind. There is a warm heartedness across the entire film that’s infectious, ensuring you are always laughing with the children, even if they may not possess the self-awareness themselves to realise the joke they’ve just cracked.
As Amanda and John wave goodbye to old pupils, say hello to new ones and welcome back students they’ve taught across four decades, the film subtly deals with the passage of time, all within the context of the academic year. If there is a flaw in this film, it’s that Chianáin merely documents events as she sees them, never straining to find a way to explore some of the more emotionally enveloping themes (like the aforementioned passing of time) in greater detail. She stays true to documenting the spirit of the school, yet doesn’t find a way to examine her two central subjects outside of the context of the day jobs they have come to be defined by.
Of course, finding a way to explore the subjects in greater detail would likely have relied on a more expository approach to the documentary - something which would have detracted from the wonderfully natural appeal of the classroom scenes. Outside of the classroom, there is an understated quirkiness that feels quintessentially British; Amanda and John are such elderly British archetypes, it can become quite easy to forget you are watching a documentary about an Irish boarding school. John, for example, maintains the responsibility of putting together a rock group comprised of the pupils, trying to find a manner to utilise everybody’s talents.
The band ends up going through more drummers than Spinal Tap, with rehearsals frequently interrupted by other young students drilling holes in the wall for a renovation project they've been entrusted with. Yet rather than seeming odd, it seems like an idealised school environment - even if the music performed is only consistent in its ear scraping awfulness, with a cover of Ellie Goulding’s Burn that manages to be worse than the one performed in Yorgos Lanthimos’ upcoming The Killing of a Sacred Deer.
For many viewers, watching School Life will make them wish they had this exciting a curriculum when they were in school. But we end up finding out more about which classes the kids are taking than the inspirational teachers who have become de facto figureheads to this educational establishment, which is a shame, as this loveable, long married couple are every bit as interesting as their workplace.