“My Old School” was originally reviewed out of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
In the world of nonfiction filmmaking, it’s not uncommon for a documentary to be acclaimed for how interesting the story is rather than for how accomplished the storytelling is; a crazy, fascinating tale can sometimes seem like a great doc even if it’s a routine piece of work.
And then there’s “My Old School,” which flipped that equation. Director Jono McLeod’s filmmaking itself is inventive and odd, and that’s almost enough – emphasis on the word almost – to make up for the fact that the story itself is something of a letdown.
A classic unreliable-narrator doc, the film is always fun to watch. But unlike, say, Ramin Bahrani’s “2nd Chance” — a 2022 Sundance doc that is intricately constructed to take the viewer through the twists and evasions doled out by its own unreliable narrator — “My Old School” works hard to put a stylish spin on a story whose surprises are telegraphed from the beginning.
It gets off to a promising start, as we see actor Alan Cumming sitting down at a desk in a Scottish classroom, with titles letting us in on the film’s central conceit: “The man at the heart of this story does not want to show his face, but you will hear his voice. The audio interview he granted will be lip synced by an actor.”
So the man, Brandon Lee, tells the story of his days in the early 1990s at Bearsden Academy, a secondary school in an upper-class section of Glasgow, Scotland. And Cumming sits there and mouths the words in a way that is uncannily accurate and quite entertaining. (It calls to mind Taghi Amirani’s 2019 documentary “Coup 53,” in which Ralph Fiennes was filmed reading the transcript of an interview with a British intelligence agent because the video of that interview had mysteriously disappeared. But that performance was a lot more serious and not nearly as playful as Cumming’s, though Fiennes did clearly have fun with it.)
Brandon’s story is an unusual one: He grew up in Canada but spent much of his childhood traveling the world with his opera-singing mother. He only came to Bearsden after both of his parents died, leaving him in Glasgow with his grandmother. He didn’t have many social skills and he looked older than his 16-year-old classmates, but he turned out to be a brilliant student who seemed to be inexorably bound for medical school.
McLeod was himself a student at Bearsden at the time that Brandon was starring in the school’s production of “South Pacific” and wowing his biology and literature teachers with his knowledge and insight. The director’s method of telling the story is basically in three parts: Cumming lip syncs the interview, other classmates sit at school desks and share their own memories of Brandon, and the memories are illustrated in bright animated sequences that run throughout the film.
The oddities begin to add up, and before long Brandon’s story becomes less and less convincing. The tricky thing is that the first and biggest revelation has seemed fairly obvious since the film’s opening moments, and there aren’t a lot of twists beyond that. The story gets weirder as it goes along, but only incrementally, and it’s all more or less variations on a theme.
It all probably feels like a big, wild story to the people who were in the thick of it at the time – which is to say, the filmmaker and his interview subjects – but it’s hardly monumental for people without a personal connection, and it wears pretty thin over the course of an hour and 44 minutes.
Still, the tribulations of high school are universal, and the film is stylish and inventive enough to be a fun ride. Cumming’s creepily spot-on job of lip syncing is a weird little marvel all by itself – even if watching him reproduce every stammer, chuckle and pause can distract you from what he’s actually saying.
Things even get a little touching toward the end when one of Brandon’s school friends asks, “What is a person?” and a montage using school photos of cast and crew members plays over a spiky new version of Steely Dan’s 1973 song “My Old School” sung by none other than the ’60s pop chanteuse Lulu (best known for a different school movie and song, 1967’s “To Sir With Love”).
The Steely Dan song sports a chorus that ends, “I’m never going back to my old school” – but going back is, of course, exactly what “My Old School” does, for better and for worse.
“My Old School” opens Friday in U.S. theaters.