Tuesday, September 05, 2017

School Life: A Year in an Irish Boarding School

Life at Headfort School is a little bit Tom Brown’s School Days and a little School of Rock, but it is all Irish, all the way. John Leyden and his wife Amanda have been faculty members at the coed boarding school since the early 1970s. They are starting to think it might be time to consider retirement, but they worry idleness could lead to a precipitous decline. As the year commences, they resolve to keep at it, as long as they maintain a proper level of professionalism. We will watch them guide their young skulls full of mush through a rather productive looking year in Neasa Ní Chianáin & David Rane’s fly-on-the-wall documentary, School Days (a.k.a. In Loco Parentis) (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

She teaches literature and drama. He teaches scripture and Latin, but also serves as the advisor to the campus rock band and art club, so it is safe to say he is using both sides of his brain. Mr. Leyden can be a bit acerbic, but they are both quite popular with their students. In fact, one of their former pupils returned to serve as headmaster.

Together with their colleagues, the Leydens will work on several students who need extra attention. Arguably, their biggest success story will be a high-functioning dyslexic boy, who was always well liked on campus, but finally seems to get a handle on his academics this year. Conversely, they will have trouble coaxing a high-achieving, socially aloof girl out of her shell, but maybe there are some encouraging signs late in the year. However, one troubled midterm transfer will have to be a work in progress.

It is surprisingly interesting to track the various pupils’ progress through the film. Perhaps Chianáin and Rane are onto a new pedagogical tool. Arguably, the stakes could not be higher, because the youngsters’ time at Headfort will directly influence which secondary school they are admitted into and largely mold them as moral-ethical adults. Yet, the vibe is almost always relaxed and soothing.

Essentially, School Life is a Wisemanesque documentary for people who read James Herriot and Patrick Taylor. Both Leydens are pleasant companions to spend time with and their students seem jolly well behaved. Plus, the Headfort campus could not possibly be any more picturesque. As an extra added bonus, Mr. Leyden will even guide his kids towards an infectiously peppy rendition of Ellie Goulding’s “Burn.”

This film is sort of like their performance. It will win you over, even if you were not expecting much. The stress level never rises too much, but it is just nice to know an institution like Headfort can maintain their standards and traditions while still keeping up with the times. Respectfully recommended for general audiences, School Days opens this Friday (9/8) in New York, at the IFC Center.