School's Out Forever

***

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

School's Out Forever
"The early part of the film is impressive."

Teenager Lee (Oscar Kennedy) is known as a troublemaker at St Mark's School for Boys. When he is caught with drugs (which he really is holding for somebody else, though he has the decency not to say so), it's the final straw, and the headmaster sends him packing; but shortly after he returns home, a global pandemic leads to the collapse of civilisation. When his father dies, he is urged by his mother, who is overseas, to go back to the school for safety, and he finds a community of other boys holding out there with the support of a teacher and the school nurse. Can they hold out until order is restored, or are they too naïve and ill-equipped to deal with the way that other survivors are reorganising the world around them?

First things first: although this is being marketed as a horror comedy, that's really not accurate. There are moments of humour, yes, but they're quickly overwhelmed by the darker aspects of the plot. The horror itself isn't the point, though, and there's plenty that will appeal to fans of the wider genre of post-apocalyptic drama. It's adapted from a series of books by Scott K Andrews, who leans much more towards science fiction, and his set-up is better thought out than most. People with O-negative blood are more resistant to the disease (it's a curious coincidence that this also seems to be true of Covid-19), resulting in a survival rate of 7% to 10% - perfect for this sort of story. He's made a good estimate of how long it will take for food supplies to run out, along with smart assessments of where power will default to as national control is lost. And although the story is mostly about boys, this is a world in which women are also movers and shakers, their agency not suddenly forgotten about as early writers of such stories frequently assumed it would be.

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Lee is not a mover or shaker. Although he shows initiative early on, enabling us to connect with him as a protagonist, he's not the sort to put himself forwards for leadership either - he's just a kid, burdened with grief, who wants to be around competent adults who can tell him what to do. Failing that, he's ready to tag along with charismatic best friend Mac (Liam Lau Fernandez). But whilst Lee is an ordinary boy who got into the school through a scholarship programme, Mac is a descendent of centuried privilege with a well developed sense of entitlement. When the residents of the school clash with residents of the nearby village - ironically led by an upper middle class woman used to being at the top of the social heap - his casual willingness to disregard the lives of others gives him power, but threatens disaster. Can Lee rise to the challenge and find a way out?

The early part of the film is impressive. There's one of those cameos from Steve Oram that no other actor present can compete with, cementing the importance of the relationship between Lee and his dad. Alex Macqueen is also good as Mr Bates, hopelessly out of his depth but striving to carry on anyway in the manner of many a teacher who has lost control of a class, and there are no real weak links in the cast. Unfortunately it loses its way as the story darkens and the more complex drama gives way to paranoia and combat. Director Oliver Milburn handles dramatic scenes well, making creative use of the space offered him by the school building, but action requires a different type f skill and there he struggles. Once we're watching night-time action, it becomes hard to follow what is going on or keep track of the shifting attitudes of the boys.

The narrative also falters at this point, all those smart ideas giving way to a cynicism about human nature which is overfamiliar and, frankly, not very well evidenced. It's fine to present it as the fate of any given bunch of characters, of course, but if we're expected to believe it then we should see them make that journey, and this film takes too much for granted. It also finds room for bits of political comment that feel rather trite, even if one is sympathetic to the general message, but then, it is aimed at teenagers, so some simplification seems reasonable.

There's some good work here and for most of its running time. School's Out Forever is a very watchable film. It just winds up feeling like a missed opportunity.

Reviewed on: 13 Jun 2021
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School's Out Forever packshot
A 15-year old flees to his school after an apocalyptic event.

Director: Oliver Milburn

Writer: Oliver Milburn, based on the book by Scott K Andrews

Starring: Sebastian Croft, Anthony Head, Samantha Bond, Jasmine Blackborow

Year: 2021

Runtime: 105 minutes

Country: UK

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