As we are reminded in far too many saccharine Hollywood tales like Stand and Deliver and Freedom Writers, teachers are capable of being extremely impactful to the impressionable youngsters in their care. When they excel at their craft, educators often uncover abilities within their students that would have otherwise remained dormant. Although it is never quite so overtly dramatic about it, School Life skillfully showcases the powerful role education can play in the lives of kids, while maintaining a subtle integrity that only serves to strengthen its thesis.
Crafting the atmosphere of an ancient era, the film spends a year at Headfort, a Hogwarts stand-in and the last remaining primary-age boarding school in Ireland, where John and Amanda Leyden have been molding young minds for nearly half a century. While they are considering what it would mean for them to hang up their chalk and walk away from the profession, they still continue to throw themselves into their work. For the moment, John’s main goal is to invigorate the school’s music program, with the help of tried-and-true rock standards and contemporary pop hits.
Co-directors Neasa Ní Chianáin and David Rane have tapped into something remarkable with their spin on a seemingly hands-off approach to documentary filmmaking. It allows the audience to be a fly on the wall, presenting them with an intimate window into the lives of these characters. It’s hardly revolutionary, but it is strikingly effective. For the majority of the film, the students don’t even appear to notice that there are cameras in the room with them, allowing us to peek into their genuine, unfiltered reactions. We are gifted emotional responses, and they are anything but manufactured.
At the center of School Life is its enormous heart, but never in a way that feels forced or sappy. The story is propelled by the curiosity that burns within young people, as well as the role education plays in fostering that desire and allowing it to shape their lives. John Leyden takes no issue in articulating his passions to his students, and it is clear that he deeply cares for them. Although he often seems terse and abrupt (particularly when compared to the sensibilities of most American viewers), John’s actions come from a place of tenderness, as is evidenced by the deadpan dad jokes that seep out of him over the course of the film.
It’s rare to see a teaching flick this fascinated with fine arts. While many movies of this ilk would stay nestled within the core subjects, School Life argues the importance of music and literature in a well-rounded education. Like an alternate reality version of School of Rock played completely straight, these students are learning to come together in harmony to master songs. They are figuring out where they shine, which often means discovering where they fizzle and flop. John has no problem pushing students in the right direction, though sometimes he must first point out there mistakes. In the band, even kids with learning disabilities and social anxiety are afforded an opportunity to show off their skills.
School Life remains endearingly naturalistic from start to finish, shying away from any of the cloying gimmicks documentaries too often cling to. In doing so, it is a triumph in delicateness, and it allows its subjects to speak on their own accord. Much like Headfort itself, the documentary acknowledges its rich lineage, and even in its most free-spirited moments, it is clearly and carefully arranged. There is poetry to be found within this narrative, as Neasa Ní Chianáin and David Rane gracefully pin down what makes the student-teacher relationship so enamoring.