Friday, July 22, 2022

My Old School

This is a documentary about an imposter, starring an imposter. Alan Cumming is not really trying to convince us he is Brandon Lee. He is just lip-synching the part, since the “real” Lee only agreed to faceless audio interviews. That prompts the question whether Lee is really Lee. Turns out he wasn’t, as Jono McLeod reveals in his game-playing documentary, My Old School, which opens today in New York.

The case of “Brandon Lee,” who enrolled in Glasgow’s academically well-regarded, middle class Bearsden Academy in 1993 would eventually be widely covered by the British tabloid press. However, if you do not know his secret, McLeod teases it out slowly, so you better appreciate how the revelations hit Bearsden students, including McLeod, himself. In some ways, the awkward Lee was conspicuously at odds with his classmates. Even his name was suspicious, since the actor Brandon Lee had just died on the set of
The Crow a few months prior to his arrival at school.

Yet, Lee thrived academically and managed to make a number of friends at Bearsden. He even starred in a school production of
South Pacific, which raises further ethical questions once the truth is established. Yet, McLeod maximizes the twists and turns getting, reflecting the confusion he and his classmates shared at the time, and to some extent still feel.

As docu-hybrids go,
My Old School is about as hybrid as they get. In addition to employing lip-synched interviews (a rare documentary technique, most notably used previously in Clio Barnard’s The Arbor), McLeod also integrates extensive Daria-style animated sequences to recreate incidents from Lee’s time at Bearsden. They have some charm and fit the 1990s vibe. As for the lip-synching, Cumming matches the subject’s audio well-enough, but his presence does not add much to enrich the film.

At seems pretty clear Lee was also trying to con himself to some extent, which ultimately makes his story rather sad. That also led him to add further layers of complications to his already ethically dubious story. For a first-time filmmaker, McLeod is remarkably skillful at playing the audience. He also faces up to the slightly creepy implications of one or two of Lee’s actions. However, there is always a clear sense throughout the film that viewers are being manipulated.

McLeod and company definitely tell a strange and sometimes amusing story. They are not without compassion for Lee, but it is even nicer to see them give due credit to the school’s late headmaster for his classy handling of the incident. It is an interesting film, told in a clever way (that sometimes borders on too-clever, but never teeters over that edge). Recommended for fans of documentaries about scams and cons,
My Old School opens today (7/22) in New York, at Film Forum.