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‘My Old School’ is a haunting documentary about what it means to grow up

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(3 stars)

In the clever and unsettling “My Old School,” filmmaker Jono McLeod spins an absorbing yarn of near-epic proportions, revisiting a stunning story from his youth that manages to tap into Gen X nostalgia and sheer weirdness while simultaneously engaging deeper issues of aspiration, class resentment and deception. In 1993, McLeod and his fellow freshmen at Bearsden Academy, in one of Glasgow’s tonier suburbs, welcomed a new student into their ranks: Brandon Lee, an auburn-haired, supernaturally mature Canadian teenager who harbored ambitions to go to medical school. .

Interviewed 25 years later, McLeod’s friends paint a stark picture of the misfit whose story has only grown more mysterious as it has come to light: his recently deceased mother was a singer of opera who educated his son on the road; his father was a prominent scholar in London. But McLeod doesn’t just trust the recollections of his peers: Brandon himself is interviewed, though he refuses to allow McLeod to show his face, for reasons that become clear in one of many startling reversals of ” My Old School”.

Brandon’s reluctance leads to the first of many creative workarounds that give “My Old School” as much visual interest as narrative propulsion: McLeod enlists Alan Cumming to portray Brandon, lip-syncing to his recorded voice. with such fluidity that he quickly disappears into the role. . Filling in the gaps with animated sequences reminiscent of the era’s primitive cartoons, McLeod creates a film as layered and contradictory as Brandon’s story itself: brimming with sweetness and naivete one moment, only to veer off into much more trouble the next.

For the first half hour or so, “My Old School” tells an encouraging story, in which Brandon begins to make friends, even changing a life or two: he reaches out to a black classmate in biology class, helps him study and makes him part of the school’s cliquey social circle. He teaches another 80s band like Husker Du, Television and Red Lorry Yellow Lorry, almost instantly turning him into a cool kid. “He fundamentally changed my taste in music,” the reformed techno-nerd says today. More importantly, Brandon agrees to star in the class production of “South Pacific,” delivering a boffo performance that cements his status as a big man on campus.

So far worthy of John Hughes, because “My Old School” promises to be a testament to the power of acceptance in the face of class snobbery, tribalism and random teenage cruelty. But the worm spins, and over the next hour, McLeod backtracks to interrogate the narrative we just heard, examine the darkest truths behind the happiest memories, and so gently question the ethics of Brandon’s concept of secondary education.

Maybe too softly: During one of the most painful interludes of “My Old School”, a classmate is confronted with the fact that she misremembered a moment with Brandon for most of his life, realizing in real time that what seemed benign would now be categorized. quite differently. Although McLeod lets the moment pass with appropriate discomfort, he never forces Brandon himself to consider his behavior. While the wacky anecdotes and animated sequences give “My Old School” vigor and momentum, that tone sometimes struggles with content that isn’t quite as wacky as the film depicts.

Still, there’s no denying that Brandon and his exploits make for a captivating and often witty meditation on what it means to grow and evolve. There’s a genuinely moving sequence at the end of “My Old School” when McLeod films his former classmates as they are now, pursuing radically divergent careers and seemingly happy lives. Even though Brandon had the craziest storyline, McLeod makes it clear that these funny, thoughtful, remarkably innocuous people were his true subjects from the start.

Not rated. At the AFI Silver Theater. Contains brief profanity. 104 minutes.


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