REVIEW: My Old School [2022]

Rating: 8 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 104 minutes
    Release Date: July 22nd, 2022 (UK)
    Studio: Magnolia Pictures
    Director(s): Jono McLeod
    Writer(s): Jono McLeod

Who touched my Chardonnay?

When you have a story as wild as the one surrounding the sixteen-year-old Canadian student “Brandon Lee” enrolling in Glasgow’s Bearsden Academy, it truly is impossible to believe a movie hasn’t already been made. It wasn’t for a lack of trying, though. Alan Cumming was attached to play the lead role twenty-five years ago only to see the project evaporate. So, it’s fitting that writer/director Jono McLeod (a former classmate of “Lee’s” who witnessed the whole ordeal himself) would enlist the actor to play him now—this time in a documentary. Because, while “Brandon” agreed to be interviewed, he refused to let his current likeness be shown on-screen. Besides archival photos and interviews already available to the public sector, My Old School puts “Lee’s” words into Cumming’s mouth.

It’s an inspired performance too. A good portion of McLeod’s film is animated to reenact the first-hand memories his former classmates and teachers provide, so he could have easily utilized cartoon to keep his subject’s face shrouded. Rather than have Cumming read the interview transcripts to build his own version of the character, however, he’s asked to memorize inflection, rhythm, and volume above the words themselves to lip-synch instead. Cumming makes “Lee’s” voice his own, giving shape to this man in as authentic a way possible without him sitting in front of the camera himself. McLeod even holds the aforementioned archival material back until the very end to help us forget the artifice and believe Alan is “Brandon”. And why not? “Brandon” has always been an illusion.

The first half of the film is thus told from within that mirage. Everyone from “Brandon” to the friends he made to the teachers that taught them relays his/her account without the benefit of hindsight … yet. They talk about this seemingly much older man entering their classroom and sitting down as a student when they thought he was a teacher. Details about his traveling the globe with his opera singer mother and living in Canada is all they need to hear to begin accepting the eccentricity of it all. That he arrived in Scotland to live with his grandmother after a tragic car accident took his mother’s life and burned his face ultimately closes the book on curiosity. It’s too horrible to be a lie.

What’s great about letting everyone have their say is the realization that this isn’t just one person’s story. Yes, “Brandon Lee” is the star they all revolve around in the context of this film, but who he was to them is much different than who he is to the world once the truth of his charade is revealed. As soon as their teenage selves let themselves know “Brandon” as their peer, he becomes exactly that. He introduced them to music. He protected them from bullies. He used his “genius level IQ” to assist them in their studies. He drove them to the city to eat out and have fun because “Canadians get their license a year before Scots.” The glaring abnormalities are difficult to see from the inside.

So, when the narrative reaches its point of reckoning, McLeod can capture his interviewees as they recall their astonishment while also supplying an environment that cultivates new astonishment. Memories are a fickle thing. We repress, alter, and forget so much of what happened in our past that the “facts” cemented in our brains are often incomplete or incorrect. Just looking at a photograph from back then, knowing what they know now about “Brandon” (I’m trying to say as little as possible since many audiences might be going in blind), demands that they question implicit truths as far as who they were in high school and how easy it was to trust a stranger. And talk of “the kiss” proves mass delusions are real once video sets things straight.

There’s also information yet to be discovered where “Brandon Lee’s” journey is concerned. By getting him on the record (if you can believe anything he says), hypotheticals and assumptions born from embellishment and media conjecture finally receive the clarity they demand. All those bits that seemed contradictory can no longer be gifted with a benefit of the doubt that those involved might have wanted to initially give considering who “Brandon” was to them regardless of the lie. By cross-referencing everyone’s truths, what he did becomes more and more insidious because of who might have been complicit and the lengths that were taken to pursue a “dream” despite its damaging consequences. It’s not far-fetched to consider a psychotic break was involved. Things could have gone much worse.

That’s not to say this isn’t already abhorrent behavior. We’re dealing with a thirty-year-old posing as a sixteen-year-old and the commitment necessary to achieve the ruse (“mind control” notwithstanding). You cannot spin it to be heartwarming no matter how positively his presence in some of these kids’ lives proved. They can look back and admit that they are better people now for having known “Brandon Lee” because “Brandon” was good for them. Saying that doesn’t negate the fact that the man who called himself “Brandon” was a narcissistic opportunist who put children at emotional and physical risk. Add the ethical and moral issues and it’s a wonder how his classmates’ parents never got the police to charge him with something illegal. Talk about a five-ring circus.

McLeod rightfully allows some of the victims to be angry as a result. The anecdotes are comical and everyone is obviously having fun reminiscing, but some of the revelations uncovered during this process unavoidably leaves some of them speechless. Call it hubris or method acting or whatever, the decision “Brandon” makes to go on vacation with three teenage girls—a trip that will eventually lead to his being exposed—is illogical at best. It just goes to show you that no matter how pragmatic you think you are or how carefully guarded you believed yourself to be, emotional attachments are guaranteed. And nothing is more dangerous to a confidence game such as this than emotions. Considering this all started with a deathbed promise, though, there’s no escaping them.

[1] Alan Cumming in MY OLD SCHOOL, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
[2] A scene from MY OLD SCHOOL, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
[3] A scene from MY OLD SCHOOL, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

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