My Old School review (Sundance 2022) – Alan Cumming helps tell the extraordinary true story of an unusual Glasgow school boy

A Scottish documentary that uses unusual techniques to tell the true story of a Glasgow school boy who wasn't what he seemed is full of heart and humour

Alan Cumming in My Old School

Documentaries are always more interesting when they move beyond the traditional talking head format and try something creative with the form. The increasing presence of hybrid documentaries and the innovative use of acting, drama, theatre, and role-play is helping to evolve the documentary in surprising and inspiring ways.

The other element we’ve seen come into documentaries more is animation as a story-telling technique – as can be seen in last year’s sublime Flee. Something else that can add an extra dimension to a documentary is when the filmmaker has a close personal connection to the material, such as in Netflix’s Dick Johnson is Dead. Directing is always going to be subjective, and sometimes leaning into that can provide the most fascinating results.

Scottish director Jono McLeod has used both acting and animation in his new documentary My Old School, and he has a personal connection to the story, to boot. The film tells the tale of an old school classmate of the director – Brandon Lee – who has an extraordinary story to tell.

Inspired by Clio Barnard’s The Arbor – and by actor Alan Cumming previously being slated to play Brandon in a dramatic adaptation of the same story – the director uses Cumming to lip-sync the words of Lee as he tells his version of events. Lee did not want to appear on screen in the documentary but provided an audio interview.

McLeod interviews his old school friends and recreates scenes from their teenage years in the 90s through the use of animation, the style of which is inspired by the opening titles of Grange Hill and by the late-90s animated series Daria.

Daria

Besides the unusual techniques involved, the greatest strength of My Old School is that McLeod interviews most of his old school friends in pairs, and their interactions with one another as they reminisce are a delight. Full disclosure – I will admit to being biased towards loving this film because I’m almost the exact same age as the people involved.

Their tales of secondary school life in 1995 are extremely familiar – they discuss the music of the time, the experience of the first friend getting a car and the freedom that gave them, their first ‘friends’ holiday with no grown-ups etc.

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The story takes place in an affluent part of Glasgow called Bearsden, and the teachers are also real characters – including the headmaster, who the kids nicknamed Batman. One of the teachers is voiced by Clare Grogan, star of the quintessential Scottish high school comedy Gregory’s Girl, which is a lovely touch.

It’s really quite surreal to hear the now-adults remembering events from 25 years ago, inter-cut with Lee also giving his memories of the same events – via Cumming’s performance. Scottish actor Cumming (best known for the James Bond and X-Men franchises) is extraordinary here. There is the technical feat of the lip-syncing combined with a performance that still brings out Lee’s humanity, despite the odd way in which his words are delivered.

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To go into the story too much would be to spoil, but we hear from the former students of Bearsden Academy who describe a new kid turning up in the 5th Year. He stands out from the start – with his curly red hair, Canadian accent, strangely intellectual vocabulary and the fact that he looks older than the rest of the kids. The students all point out that his name is the same as that of Bruce Lee’s son, who died while filming a movie just a month before this Brandon Lee lands in Glasgow.

Lee claims that he’s been touring the world with his mother – an Opera singer, but she has now died, and he’s come to live with his Gran in Bearsden. Lee wants nothing more than to go to medical school and immediately begins to excel in his studies, and gets the lead part in the school musical – South Pacific.

Hearing how the other ostracised kids, who are bullied for liking the wrong bands or just because of plain racism, start to gather around Lee is really moving. Lee introduces them to new, better music or invites them around to his Gran’s for help with homework and exam revision.

Once he appears in the school play, Lee becomes more popular, and a group of girls even invite him on holiday with them. It’s impossible to really say more, but despite the lies and betrayals that eventually unfold, both the filmmaking and the now-adult school friends of Lee remain refreshingly non-judgmental.

As someone who has remained friends with the people I went to secondary school with, it’s heart-warming to watch McLeod and the rest of the ex-Bearsden Academy students reconnect with one another and compare their memories of what would prove to be a memorable year in their lives.

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No one person’s version of events as to how and why the story unfolded is to be fully trusted after 25 years, but the collective picture we gather is of someone turning out to be quite a different person from the person they thought they’d built a friendship with. The lack of anger or bitterness they seem to hold is really endearing though, and they all seem like they would be a great bunch of mates to hang out with.

My Old School is a riveting documentary, especially if you have no idea where the story’s going. But a greater joy than seeing the mystery unfold is enjoying the unusual combination of story-telling techniques employed by McLeod and getting to spend time with a really endearing group of people.

A Glaswegian sense of humour certainly helps when dealing with such a strange set of events, which includes a Canadian opera singer, Jedi mind control, a place called Spam Valley, the Euro-techno band 2 Unlimited, a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical and the holiday from hell. And it’s the humour and heart that leaves a lasting impression in this gift of a documentary.

My Old School review (Sundance 2022)

A documentary that combines Daria-style animation, Alan Cumming lip-syncing and the filmmaker’s personal connection to the material to tell a gripping true story of a Glasgow school boy who wasn’t what he seemed.

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