Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Sep 05, 2017 6:37 am 
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Teaching and caring in an Irish boarding school

In Loco Parentis, retitled School Life, a sweet doc in the Fred Wiseman style about an idyllic Irish private school - Headfort, in Kells - is partly a vision of what a decent, sane and kind society with benevolent governors might be like. Headfort is in a converted stately home 200 years old - with interiors by Robert Adam, but there's no emphasis on that. The focus is on John and Amanda Leyden, a couple near retirement who're both teachers in the school, and we often see their private chats that show their intimate caring about individual kids - all the school does this; it cares for kids in loco parentis, playing benevolent and wise parental substitutes.

We see John's brusque, direct manner and Amanda's chatty, motherly style. She imparts a love of books and directs, with passion and great skill, from the look of it, a staging of Hamlet in which a problem dyslexic boy, Ted, triumphs as the Ghost. John teaches Latin but reigns in a riotous cavern of a space where mural painting and rock and roll go on. Some of the faculty were once John and Amanda's students, at least the headmaster and a younger woman teacher. The filmmakers have free access to the school, including the dorms and the cottage where John and Amanda live in amiable disorder with some big cozy dogs.

The last remaining primary-age preparatory boarding school in Ireland, Headfort, established in 1949 (John Leyden came in 1970) has a Montessori branch at the lower level and is liberal and progressive. Its classes have largest Irish, English, French, Spanish, Korean and American contingents with some others represented. (There are day as well as boarding students.) Obviously, it is a place of privilege, and very largely white. English manners and accents seem to prevail. But it's a liberal and progressive environment. With the rock n' roll and class discussions of things like gay marriage, it's hardly a throwback. Students nonetheless go on to such august institutions as Eton and Harrow. Switching from the soft gray casual uniforms here to the eccentric old fashioned ones at Eton might be a bit of a shock.

We do see an important written exam being given, among glimpses of almost everything: there is good coverage of the play and the music and tracings of some individual kids, Ted, Flora, the very gifted yet at first too stiff and withdrawn Eliza. But the film flits about rather than takes long moments between particular students and teachers. It can't match for emotion or deep focus Nicolas Philibert's landmark French elementary class study, To Be and to Have, though its caring and bowing out teachers make us think of that film.

But there is so much to cover here, even in a logistical sense. The grounds and woods are extensive, and the kids are allowed to roam them in their free time. We get quick looks at sports teams and a coach who look quite good but this isn't John and Amanda's purview so we only glimpse them. We see the headmaster address the students at beginning of term in the grand hall, and giving out awards at the end. We also see him teaching civics, hence the discussion of gay marriage. We also see him teaching civics, hence the discussion of gay marriage. Some quick repartee of boys in one class reminds us of Alan Bennett's classic The History Boys making us wish for more classroom byplay and delineation of courses, but this is a fly-on-the-wall picture of the whole school, not a brochure on its program.

The film, which aside from the lively tone-deaf class bands, features a delicate, eccentric score by Eryck Abecassis, has a persistent casual sweetness about it conveying an overwhelming sense of a safe place. The kids cry plenty when they arrive, but also cry to leave, when there are hugs all round. John Leyden may seem gruff with the kids; Amanda sometimes chides him for it. He clearly errs at first with a new arrival, Flora, a former model who's been to too many schools and has self-confidence issues, and shrinks from playing in the band, shifts to painting, then disappears from the activity for 12 days. She turns out to be an excellent drummer: it's Amanda who finds out her needs and makes it work. But John cares too, we clearly see. What will they do if they retire? This is their life, and how absorbing and worthwhile it is, is the subject of this charming little film.

School Life (original title In Loco Parentis), 100 mins.., debuted Nov. 2016 at International Documentary Festival, Amsterdam, then at Sundance Jan. 2017; also a half dozen other festivals including San Francisco and Sydney. US theatrical release by Magnolia begins 8 Sept. 2017.

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