Review by Sean Boelman
Sundance likes to feature documentaries with stories that are so weird they must be true, and that film this year is My Old School. An unpredictable and fun ride, the movie makes something unexpectedly compelling out of a story that is ultimately at a much smaller scale than it presents itself to be.
The film explores the story of a teenage boy who, after achieving unexpected popularity as the new kid in school, is discovered to have committed an extraordinary ruse. At first, one may wonder why they should actually care about this story, but it’s easy to get invested in this tale that is stranger than fiction.
There is definitely a sense of humor about the whole thing given the ridiculousness of the premise. Jono McLeod thankfully doesn’t take the whole thing too seriously, refusing to approach it as an exposé and instead presents it as this crazy communal experience that all of them had.
At a few points in the movie, it seems like McLeod is going to use this story of a case study as to how the system was such a failure and led to these events, but the film soon pivots back to being a lighthearted (albeit piteous) recollection. And it’s actually refreshing to see a movie that knows what it is and not make too big of a deal out of itself.
The film’s director was enrolled at the school where the events depicted in the movie occurred, and so for better or worse, it has that personal feeling to it. McLeod recruited several of his former classmates and teachers to give talking heads in the film, and they have a surprising amount of personality given that they are effectively showing a bunch of old friends reminiscing about their high school years.
Even more interesting is the fact that McLeod uses actor Alan Cumming as a stand-in for the movie’s subject. Although the subject wouldn’t appear on camera, he agreed to be interviewed, so McLeod has Cumming lip sync the audio of the interview. It’s an intriguing method that is really creative, even if it doesn’t have much of an effect on the story itself (positive or negative).
There are also many animated sequences (with animation reminiscent of the television show Daria) that are used to illustrate the story in the past as opposed to traditional reenactments. It gives the film an infectiously fun atmosphere, especially when compounded with the great soundtrack.
My Old School may not be one of the more hard-hitting documentaries in this year’s festival, but that doesn’t make it any less worthy of your time. It’s just an enjoyable movie which realizes what is compelling about its story in the first place, and makes the most of that.
My Old School screened at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, which runs virtually January 20-30.