School Life is a documentary that chronicles an entire academic term at Headfort School, the only primary-age boarding school in Ireland. The film is a story of contrasts and juxtapositions. John and Amanda Leyden have taught at the school for over forty years. As they contemplate retirement, their pupils are grappling with their impending adolescence. The Leyden’s careers are coming to an end while their pupils’ achievements are just beginning.
School Life is refreshingly free of any agenda. It isn’t condemning bullying or exploring advances in teaching techniques. It is a fly-on-the-wall examination of a group of children living in a closed environment with one another. We meet the child with dyslexia, the quiet child who suffers from social anxiety, the new arrival with a traumatic past. Since these are real children and not characters in a screenplay, School Life takes its subjects as it finds them. There are no neat narrative arcs because real life simply doesn’t offer that kind of closure after nine months. We meet them as children and leave them as children, knowing some of them better than others by the time the credits roll.
One of the film’s assets is also one of its liabilities. It’s refreshing to see a documentary devoid of talking head interviews, archive footage and the like. School Life is not a history lesson about the 18th century estate occupied by these children. The audience lives among the film’s subjects for 100 minutes with no commentary by the filmmakers. However, by the end of the film, the audience feels the limitations of this approach. None of our questions have been asked. We have few answers at the end of our journey. The film scratches the surface of its subject, but never manages to dig deeper.
John and Amanda Leyden, the married teachers with 80 years of experience between them, must have vast amounts of knowledge and anecdotes to impart, but that wealth of information remains untapped. Surely, teaching the children of today is vastly different than teaching children in the 1970’s. However, given the limitations of this style of documentary, that subject is never broached. We see brief glimpses of the Leyden’s hopes, dreams and fears, but their lives don’t resonate with the audience because the audience only knows them in the moment. The same can be said for the overall film. Without any history, the experience isn’t nearly as rich as it could have been.
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.