My Old School


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

My Old School
"McLeod teases out the tale as we see how much of this has exited the realm of fact and entered the realm of collective myth and storytelling in the years that have passed." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

The madeleine of memory becomes a sausage on a fork in the opening credits of My Old School - square, of course, because this is Scotland, rather than the one that everyone of a certain age will remember from Grange Hill. It's key to one of the undercurrents of this film, however, in that it is at once a triggered recollection - a sausage - but not quite 'right' - square - and this mutability of memory runs through this peculiar story of a year of so in the life of "schoolboy Brandon Lee" and the kids and teachers who knew him.

Lee, whose story is well kent in Scotland but less so further afield, appears here through the avatar of Alan Cumming, who in another nod to memory, was once supposed to play Lee in a dramatisation of the bizarre events that occurred at Bearsden Academy in one of the leafier bits of Glasgow back in 1993. Lee was interviewed for this documentary by Jono McLeod - who has real skin in the game as one of Lee's classmates at the time of the scandal - and his words are lip-synched by Cumming.

On the day Lee came to class, one kid remembers thinking: "What's a teacher doing in uniform?" Lee looked too old to be one of them, plus there was that name - of a star that had only recently been killed on the set of a film. And yet Lee came bundled with a backstory, involving time spent in Canada and the death of his opera-singing mother that had held back his schooling. Sure he was odd but somehow a bit of a charmer, studious in lessons and pleasant to his classmates. And, as we've seen from documentaries like The Imposter, it's amazing what people will bend their brain around when presented with it as 'fact'. McLeod relates what happened over the next year or so, through a mixture of talking heads testimony - with interviewees, all behind school desks, often together, so their recollections can bounce off one another - and animation that recreates some of what we hear. There's a good dose of Weegie humour at work here, an irreverence towards events that helps to off-set the rather staid formula McLeod has used - although I did find myself questioning whether one guy really had said "projects" on camera when referring to housing at the first time of asking, when the word "schemes" is the normal term in Scotland. One eye on the US market, perhaps?

But back in 1993, a con was on, but what con exactly and why? McLeod teases out the tale as we see how much of this has exited the realm of fact and entered the realm of collective myth and storytelling in the years that have passed. Given that there was a scam at work here, it comes as a surprise to see how warm these memories of Lee are. There's an odd matter of factness to his recollections, Cumming's body language adding to the sense of someone not quite in step but many of the kids who spent time alongside him, remember him as influential on their lives, offering them friendship, help with homework and respite from bullies. How the truth came out is  also a matter of debate, and McLeod has some fun pulling the story this way and that as facts are revealed, the kids, now adults, having to reassess their own assessment all over again. Like many a good tale recounted by friends, there is a shaggy dog, repetitive tendency in places - potentially because due to considerations of it being carved up for TV - that could have used a bit more reining in during the edit, but this is nonetheless and absorbing tale of the stories we tell and the messy nature of memory.

Reviewed on: 01 Feb 2022
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My Old School packshot
The astonishing true story of Scotland's most notorious imposter. It's 1993 and 16-year-old Brandon is the new kid in school. Soon he’s top of the class, acing exams and even taking the lead in the school musical. He’s the model pupil, until he's unmasked.
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Director: Jono McLeod

Starring: Alan Cumming

Year: 2022

Runtime: 104 minutes

Country: UK

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