School Life tries very hard to evoke Linklater’s School of Rock.
Tracing a year at Ireland’s only boarding preparatory academy, School Life lacks the studied patience of Wiseman’s High School and the charismatic pathos of Philibert’s To Be and to Have. School Life’s bloodless opening hour, inexplicable editing and overbearing use of setting are too much for the occasional engaging scene to overcome. The documentary mainly follows two teachers throughout Headfort School, an institution where each faculty member pulls double duty and works as both a classroom instructor and a manager of an extracurricular activity. The protagonists here—married couple John and Amanda Leyden—teach Latin and literature and lead the after-school band and theatre programs, respectively. A few students and the headmaster repeatedly show up throughout the runtime as well, giving the film something of a six-person cast.
School Life, trying very hard to evoke Linklater’s School of Rock, is chiefly concerned with John’s stewardship of the band, which features electric guitars, rock drums and multiple singers performing pop music covers. It is a touch of rebellion in what outsiders may assume is a bastion of traditionalism. John, however, is no Dewey Finn, nor does he inspire the same sort of devotion in his students, and any connections between rock music and rebellion at Headfort are superficial at best.
The band scenes are also the worst offender for one of the film’s biggest downfalls. Namely, throughout the documentary, the camera does little to stimulate the viewer. It consists primarily of short static shots of crowded interiors. Headfort is blessed with a prodigious campus famously full of forests, horse-riding trails and sporting fields, but School Life captures little of this; instead, it shows shy students sitting awkwardly on a dingy couch in a windowless room during music rehearsals.
Overall, there is little energy in the documentary. This is appalling, given that it is set on the grounds of a school for seven- to 13-year-olds, who possess infinite zest and are given the run of the school’s massive campus for their recreation and education. Moreover, the rather staid and measured tone of the film does not seem to have any purpose, rendering it all the more inexplicable.
In fact, it’s hard to pinpoint what, precisely, the narrative intentions of directors Neasa Ní Chianáin and David Rane are. They are certainly not offering a critique of Headfort and its stodgily conservative social purpose, but if they are lauding the school, then they do a very poor job of it. They are also not exploring the connections forged during a school year between teachers and students, or trying to capture what classrooms are like in boarding schools in Ireland. Perhaps they want to provide a portrait of the Leydens and their life of dedicated service teaching at the school. If so, however, why focus on only a single year (both have been at Headfort for 40 years) rather than compiling a more historical examination?
Ultimately, the lack of purpose could be blamed on deficient editing. Non-narrative-driven slice-of-life documentaries can be excellent (see last year’s stellar Cameraperson as an example), but all the pressure for carrying the story in such a film is put on the cut. In School Life, the cut often appears random and conveys little narrative meaning. There is neither story nor purpose in the shots, and the poor editing does not help.
School Life is not wholly without merit. The few scenes depicting Headfort’s rugby squad are quite amusing, as are the almost-racist (in an innocent, childish way) forest battles between rival factions of students who each construct and then defend their own fort in the woods on the school’s campus. What these scenes prove, however, is that the content choices made by Ní Chianáin and Rane are particularly poor. There should be much more attention given to forts in the forest, locker room pep talks and even classroom instruction and much less to kids staring at other kids practicing the drums.