Viewed with hindsight and distance, high school memories begin to feel a bit like a young adult novel or TV show. Even though we know that many of the experiences we had were, by comparison to adult life, pretty inconsequential, we still remember friendship squabbles, acts of rebellion and insatiable crushes as the biggest events in the history of the world. It's written somewhere deep in our DNA. For his debut documentary feature, Jono McLeod digs into his memories of being a student at Bearsden Academy in Glasgow in the early 1990s - but this isn't just an opportunity for him to reminisce with his schoolmates. McLeod, his friends and his teachers were unknowing participants in one of the strangest scandals of the 90s in the UK, one where the usual teenage struggles with identity and belonging were amplified to bizarre levels.
The pivot point of 'My Old School' is Brandon Lee, a teenager who joins Bearsden in his final years of secondary education, initially bemusing the other students with his strange accent and oddly-mature features, but soon ingratiates himself with the school community... that is, until Brandon's secret is revealed and everyone is forced to face the web of lies Brandon has woven. Brandon isn't really 'Brandon'. Brandon is someone else entirely.
I won't ruin the twist here in case you want to enjoy the way the film cleverly unfolds the mystery at its heart, but a quick Google of "Brandon Lee school" will give you everything you need if you so wish. McLeod's approach to the story is the imaginative weaving of three different storytelling modes. For the most part, we learn the story from interviews with McLeod and his many classmates. Those memories are then recreated partly with archival footage but mostly through 'Daria'-inspired animation, with the many characters voiced by actors. The third layer, and the most intriguing, is the presence of Brandon himself. McLeod does interview him, but at Brandon's request, is unable to show his face. Rather than resort to a dark screen or more animation, acclaimed actor Alan Cumming ('Eyes Wide Shut') plays the role of Brandon as a lip-sync to his recorded interview.
Each of these three modes effectively tap into the thematic and dramaturgical mechanisms at work in 'My Old School', and amplify what would could have been a stock-standard curiosity into a surprisingly affecting and bouncy documentary. By having Cumming "play" Brandon, McLeod is adding another layer to Brandon's "performance". Even though we hear his voice and McLeod is making the aesthetic choices for how Brandon looks, Brandon is still in control, orchestrating the version of himself he wishes to present. The use of Cumming (whose performance is so instantly convincing and precise that you forget you aren't hearing his own lovely, lilting voice) initially strikes as a clever solution to a problem, but as the film progresses and we're introduced to additional visual representations of Brandon (Cumming, the animated Brandon and finally photos of Brandon himself at Bearsden), the solution becomes so integral to the fabric and mystery of the film, and to actualising the puzzle of Brandon's sense of identity, that you can't imagine it without it.
'MY OLD SCHOOL' TRAILER
Of the three modes, the animation serves the most direct function. The choice to use animation to dramatise the stories of the interviewees isn't as exciting as that of the style of animation chosen by McLeod, creative director Rory Lowe and art director Scott Morriss. Whether intentional or not, the visual evocation of the beloved MTV animated sitcom immediately contextualises these stories within 90s culture, connecting the film with perhaps the most honest and certainly the most creative representation of high school from that decade. Cumming is joined by Lulu, Dawn Steele and others to voice the teenagers and their teachers, and there's great charm in the corny silliness of the animated sequences. They add to the idea of high school as a heightened kaleidoscope of memories that just grow in infamy and dramas as time goes on, and like Cumming's lip-synching, add meaning as well as creative novelty.
The most effective of the storytelling modes are the interviews themselves. McLeod is able to pull together a remarkable breadth of classmates, giving a vivid picture of the school's culturally and economically diverse student body, and with the film's simplest and most effective creative choice, have them interviewed mostly in pairs inside a high school. Why this is so clever is in how it serves to help the interviewees reconnect with their memories of Bearsden, Brandon and, most importantly, each other. They immediately rediscover that insatiable teenage chemistry with one another as if no time at all has passed - that sense that, at that age, you could say anything without much consequence. They joke, they gossip, they tease, they bounce off one another as if they were teenagers all over again. Every single interview is so charming and so delightful, the classmates often reducing each other to a giggling mess. For those interviewed on their own, the same is achieved because McLeod is interviewing them, their classmate, meaning that, though we can't see the connection visually, we still feel it.
So much of 'My Old School' pulls off the magic trick of invoking the buried memories of high school as something fresh and immediate and instantly relatable, but the power of the film comes in how this invocation sets off a process of reflection. Presented now with all the facts of the strange case of Brandon Lee, these adults now have the opportunity to reflect on his actions, how they became complicit and the significant impact he had on them. At its funniest, we get great moments of sudden realisation in real time, laughing at themselves for being so gullible. At its most moving, there are admissions of how deeply Brandon's friendship shaped who they were for the better, even if his motives were highly dubious.
At its funniest, we get great moments of sudden realisation in real time, laughing at themselves for being so gullible. At its most moving, there are admissions of how deeply Brandon's friendship shaped who they were for the better, even if his motives were highly dubious.
The irony of Brandon Lee was that, in his performance as someone other than who he was, he became a metaphor for the very struggle his classmates were grappling with. They were looking to music and fashion and culture to try and construct who they were, trying new things and occasionally stumbling in the process. These were necessary, while Brandon's was far greater and more self-serving. Where their struggles were required and essential, Brandon's transgression takes advantage of the smokescreen puberty presents, where the amorphous process of physical and emotional self-construction excuses the strangest of behaviours. As crazy a story as it is, there's no horrifying dark revelation at the end of 'My Old School', but his lie is still an unsettling one, and speaks not only to the confusion of puberty, but how easily that confusion can act as a diversion, not just within teenagers themselves but how adults choose to treat and perceive them.
What makes 'My Old School' so satisfying is that the gimmicks of its storytelling gel so beautifully with the story it is choosing to tell, and how each is in positive service of delivering it as effectively as possible. Your mind boggles at the insanity of Brandon's story, even more so hearing him tell it to you in hindsight through the familiar instrument of Alan Cumming, but at its best, 'My Old School' is a spot-on and unexpectedly moving portrait of a group of adults reflecting on how they came to be who they were. There's no sense of wanting to return to that time, no evocation of that horrible n-word that we use so freely to describe anything that looks our childhood pasts, but instead an opportunity for reflection guided by a single event or person. It's hard not to think about your own high school experiences watching the film, even if it isn't as dramatic as that unexpectedly thrust on the students in Bearsden in 1995. You find yourself thinking about those friendships that shaped your teens, the corridors you ran down, the mischief you managed to pull off (and didn't) and the ripples of those years still present decades later.
And maybe that's why I walked away from 'My Old School' so thoroughly satisfied - because that is exactly the process Jono McLeod is engaging in by making the film. If it were made by an outside party, there might have been a more objective lens, but you then would have lost the sense that the film is actively searching for something, that its creation is connected directly with its creator. This doesn't always work (the deeply frustrating 2008 documentary 'Dear Zachary: A Letter to A Son About His Father' is an example of it going wildly wrong), but McLeod has the advantage of a clear set of guiding questions: who was Brandon really? Why did he do it? How did he pull it off? And what does that say about him and his friends? These questions guide the interviews (including that with Brandon), and consequently guide the shape and structure of the film. He's trying to get to the bottom of this strange chapter in all their lives, and in the process, giving us space to dig into our own strange stories of being a teenager and finding out who we are and what we want to do in the world and the people we want to do it with. This is the kernel of clarity that turns what could have been an act of navel-gazing self-indulgence into one of the most entertaining and heartwarming documentaries of the past few years, like having a reunion with a bunch of friends you've never met before.