Running Time: 99 Minutes
Director: David Rane and Neasa Ní Chianáin
Long careers are drawing to a close for John and Amanda, who teach Latin, English, and guitar at a stately home-turned-school, where they are legends with a mantra: “Reading. ‘Rithmetic. Rock ‘n’ roll!” But leaving is the hardest lesson.
School Life is a “does what it says on the tin” documentary. It is about life in a school. Headfort to be exact, a gothic boarding school somewhere in Ireland; the documentary isn’t clear on that.
In fact, the film isn’t clear on much at all, we are thrown from disjointed fragments of school life and held at a distance. It remains unclear who or what the exact purpose of the documentary is and ultimately what School Life is supposed to teach us about our own lives.
The focus falls on a married pair of teachers, John and Amanda Leyden, and a handful of their students. The chain-smoking couple bring a warmth and a dry humour that give the film its heart, and are clearly teachers who care very deeply about the wellbeing of their students. Amanda prepares her students for a school play, while John supervises the school band introducing them to Jimi Hendrix and David Bowie like some ironic Irish School of Rock.
Most of the students remain nameless and faceless, running through corridors and vying for teachers’ attentions; but a few do get individual attention. There’s the always silent, never smiling Eliza, who excels academically but is always on the peripheral socially.
There’s Ted, a dyslexic boy preparing for his confirmation and attempting to cement his place as class clown. And finally, there’s Florence, a child model from London who comes to the school after leaving many others. Florence is a talented drummer and agrees to be in the school band but doesn’t turn up for practice, and this is the closest the film ever gets to a conflict and it is resolved off-camera.
That is to say, School Life is not for the viewer seeking melodrama or boarding school antics like St. Trinian’s, pranks are planned but never carried out on camera (and are the sort of “pranks” that well-behaved children would come up with, like going to class in their pyjamas). It is a slow paced piece, and viewers looking for a detail heavy investigation of the education system should look elsewhere.
It is a fly-on-the-wall look at a school unlike most others, but our documentarians remain so disconnected that it is hard to grasp what exactly the film wants to say. There are children from all over the world attending the school, but we never get any indication of what life is like for them in a rural Irish boarding school. Admittedly not much happens in the film but I think it’s naturalistic style allows us to draw our own conclusions.
For me, it seems that School Life wants to be about the community in the eccentric Headfort school, but accidently presents an insight into the heart-breaking loneliness of childhood. Homesick children burst into tears, unsure when they’ll be reunited with their parents. Ted is a substitute for the rugby team and waits alone on the side of a rainy pitch, warming up for a game we never see him play.
Eliza is silent and perpetually miserable looking. Before Florence is introduced, the staff talks about her “problems with self-esteem” and she too breaks down sobbing shortly after arriving at the school. These children all surely have just as many happy memories of school, but it doesn’t erase the undercurrent of sadness throughout the film, compounded by the aging Leydens preparing for their retirement and departure from the school.
School Life is a bitter-sweet slice of life look at the teachers and students of Headfort boarding school. It offers access to this unique school and reflections (however unfocused) on growing up and growing old.