This is sure to be one of our favorite documentaries of the year.
John and Amanda Leyden have been teaching at Ireland’s Headfort School since the early 1970s. Starting about the same time, they met there, fell in love, and married shortly after. They live together on the grounds but talk of potentially retiring, after which Amanda would like to finally own a place, maybe a small farmhouse somewhere.
But could they actually ever leave the place? That’d be like abandoning their family, as it appears to be such in the terrific documentary School Life. The film was formerly titled (at the time of our viewing) In Loco Parentis, which of course refers to the general idea in educational institutions that the students are under the care of the teachers and other staff, “in the place of a parent.” That’s especially true at a boarding school like Headfort, and the Leydens appear to be the most parental to the children there.
Not that they’re a particularly compassionate pair, despite their love for the job and students, which come from many parts of the world. John especially is pretty straight with the kids, including those who join him for extracurricular activities like playing in a rock band and painting murals. He has no time for their shyness or their crying or their lack of confidence and commitment. These are impressionable preteens, and they get a lot of attention and close nurturing. However, they’re hardly coddled.
The Leydens have had kids of their own, none of whom are shown, and the current headmaster at Headfort was their pupil long ago. It was a stricter time back then, he tells some of the children, claiming to have been beaten after he led a small choir rebellion. Another one of their former students visits to help John with the rock band. Given their rapport, she might as well be the Leydens’ daughter returning home from university.
Filmmaker Neasa Ni Chianain and her team, including co-director David Rane, also seem to have lived on campus as they present a year in the life of this unconventional school with incredible intimacy, never missing a thing. They’re everywhere, in the classrooms, the dorms, John’s music and art space, the athletic fields and tree forts outside, and at the Leydens’ home and by their special smoking spot on campus, where they get together to discuss students worth addressing, most of them characters the film highlights, including a dyslexic boy and a bright girl who never ever smiles.
The close but hands-off observational approach is perfect for the school, which prides itself on catering to each attendee individually and on the relative freedom the students are given. Although the Leydens are the primary subjects, we kind of get to experience what it’s like to be enrolled at Headfort while also experiencing some of what it’s like to be employed there. We encounter the institution on two tiers, relating to both sides.
Then there’s the location itself. It’s cliche to say the setting is a character all it’s own, and it’s really not. But it is a very important element to the film, as the camera navigates us through the magnificent halls and rooms of the former lord’s manor, built in the 18th century and now a landmark, as well as the rest of the property. When the film concludes with the end of the school year, we’re right there with the teachers not wanting to say goodbye to the kids, with the kids not wanting to say goodbye to their friends or the teachers, and especially not wanting to leave Headfort House at all.
Another notable piece of the film is its score, composed by Ni Chianain regular Eryck Abecassis. It’s much more prominent and freer than we’re used to with documentary, and it turns what might be perceived as a fly on the wall film to something that guides our emotion and excitement at every turn. At first I was actually turned off by its dominant contribution to the atmosphere of School Life, but it’s quite essential to the film’s charm.
And this is a film with tons of charm, from the kids rocking out while performing The Troggs and Ellie Goulding tunes and John’s discernible delight through his deadpan expression to Amanda spending time with her dogs and happening upon a student in the woods taking photographs to the co-ed adventures in the forts during playtime, and so much more. It’s a real joy to watch and invest in the characters. I’d love to return for another term.
This review was slightly altered from its original form due to the title change from ‘In Loco Parentis’ to ‘School Life.’