Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Nov 15, 2021 12:18 pm 
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A charismatic headmaster heals the residue of The Troubles in a Belfast school

The boys in this vivid, enjoyable film are almost unbearably cute, as well as uniform in size, shape, and color, being nearly all-white kids from the same part of Belfast, in Northern Ireland, and prepubescent, which also enhances uniformity, besides which they all wear black uniforms with red collars. Though none of this is explained - the film is rigorously observational, with no guideposts or narration - the student body appears to come largely from the adjoining working class neighborhood of small uniform row houses (Tigers Bay is mentioned) in the Ardoyne section of north Belfast, a place where their parents were directly in the late sixties-to-late-nineties civil unrest and street conflict known as The Troubles, and suffer from and risk passing on a legacy of violence and trauma: suicides and drug problems are still endemic in the community. This is a main remedial focus of the Holy Cross Boys Primary School's charismatic and inspiring headmaster, Kevin Mc Arevey, who is the center of the action. Mind you, they seem largely a cheerful and happy lot, but they may carry more than usual pugnaciousness in their DNA. Mc Arevey teaches the boys to connect with their emotions but learn to think reasonably in conflicts, stop the violence from being passed on. He teaches them to control anger and resolve conflicts, and to be teachers for their parents, whom he also addresses: "Shock, horror," he says as they laugh, "you're going to talk with your child."

Kevin Mc Arevey is is a role model for us all, a charismatic teacher like the fictional ones embodied by Sidney Poitier in To Sir, with Love or Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, though while those are designed to leave you weeping, Mc Arevey is more likely to leave you with a smile. He keeps it firm, but light, and the lilt of the Ulster intonation adds to a friendly, restrained effect to outsiders. To help out, there are subtitles; but this is an accent, not a dialect.

Mc Arevey is shaven-headed and elegant, with a severe edge to his jaw, a Ju-Jitsu instructor with brawn in his body and a smile in his eyes. His love of Elvis is well known, we see him sing along in his car and he peppers the school with statuettes and posters to The King. He is a colorful, sure-footed man, not young but ageless. We see him working out with weights in the gym and he runs up the stairs. He mentions once that he has a wife and children of his own. But the filmmakers do not invade his private life or ever show him at home. That he has a past of violence and alcohol he atones for and removes himself from by his intense daily exercise and inspired pacifist teaching, this is a detail he reveals briefly only once, one that adds three-dimensionality but is not at all emphasized.

This place has the mark of its leader. Uniquely for a state owned elementary school, Mc Arevey has made "philosophy" a major subject, placing images of the ancient Greeks all around, a marked sign of his originality. When it's time to do philosophy, a ball with precepts printed on it is passed to any boy called upon to speak on a given issue. The issues are kept simple, and clear. Wisdom and positivity prevail. The headmaster often praises a boy's response as "absolutely brilliant." At the end there is a boy who has hit someone on the playground who excuses it by saying his father taught him if he's struck, to hit back. Mc Arevey stages a role-play in public (Shakespeare's Henry IV comes to mind) where he is the boy and the boy is his "Da" whom he, as the boy, convinces that pacifism works better and feels better. The performance he pronounces "Absolutely brilliant.'

He also presents films and photos depicting the time of The Troubles and talks about the trauma of those times and their effect on the boys' parents. Present-day filmgoers may currently see dramatized recreations of intense street violence in Kenneth Branagh's vivid, if overly picturesque, homage to his own childhood, the new black and white film, Belfast. The events in Branagh's film are viewed ambivalently; the younger boy protagonist and his parents differ on whether they should escape to England, where the father works, or stay where they know everyone. The boys in Young Plato are from families who stayed.

The staff have created an oasis around the rules-breaking, compassionate headmaster, and the school he rules with such a strong but gentle hand is an oasis in what is clearly one of the city of Belfast's toughest neighborhoods and ones most scarred by sectarian conflict. This is a bold and remarkable project, and it's not for us to criticize its depiction here as sometimes a bit tweaked or lacking in nuance and three-dimensionality. The main object here, one well achieved, is to show off its protagonist's teaching and example-setting methods. This is done with today's smooth, seamless editing and a cinematography that's exceptionally clutter-free and bright. That suits the Mc Arevey world view perfectly. This little film, like its subject, is an unexpected rock star among this year's best documentaries deserving more recognition than it has so far gotten.

Young Plato, 102 mins., had its world premiere in competition at DOC NYC Nov. 14, 2021 and was screened in advance of that. The film is available virtually on the DOC NYC online platform Nov. 15-28.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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