The logline for School Life focuses on the impending retirement of John and Amanda Leyden, teachers at an elementary boarding school in Kells, Ireland. But the trajectory of their careers is peripheral to the definition of the title: the students, their strengths and weaknesses, their interactions with their instructors, their misbehavior, and the initial difficulties of being away from their parents, likely for the first time. Sometimes the kids are not all right.
Neasa Ní Chianáin and David Rane’s documentary starts at the Leydens’ home, which is on the Headfort School’s grounds and owned by the institution. As they mull calling it quits, Amanda says, “I would be wasting [the students’] time if I was no good.” Yet once we transition to the school itself, it’s apparent she has nothing to worry about. She’s the bleeding heart of the couple, once telling her husband, “You don’t understand their lives. They don’t laugh.” (There’s only occasional proof of this.) In contrast, we once see John sitting quietly in a classroom and then remark, “Sounds like children. Fuck.” One imagines that, after a 46-year tenure at the school, he’s mostly joking. But in general he doesn’t bother to soften any blows he deals to the kids.
Amanda, who wears a barbell in her eyebrow, teaches literature, while John focuses on math and music, particularly rock ’n’ roll. Because the documentary is rather scattershot, we also see the headmaster, Dermot Dix, a former student of the Leydens’, teach and interact with students. He’s startlingly left-leaning: During a classroom discussion about same-sex marriage, one student argues that God says homosexuality is wrong. Dix counters, “But we don’t know if God exists.” Whoa. Another student counters her peer by saying, “Sometimes it’s better to be gay than to be single.” She doesn’t expand on the thought, which is clearly misguided, even if it shows a mindset of inclusivity. Dix also asks if marriage is natural.
School Life, on the whole, captures a world in which the attitude and approach of teachers are crucial to the responsiveness and success of their students. In equal measure, the kids are obedient, jubilant, and rowdy. They form strong friendships and cry on the last day of school. One girl, Eliza, remains stubbornly quiet and looks miserable everywhere she goes. John’s sarcastic toward her—a dicey tactic—but later in the year he tells Amanda, “She was terribly chatty and full of fun and was behaving badly in the dormitory last night. I think it’s completely brilliant.” He’s also relatively soft toward a new girl, Fleury, who plays the drums in his music class rather well, but soon starts crying because she lacks confidence. He tells her to take five to sort herself out and later questions whether she’d rather be painting. Clearly there’s a heart beneath the crustiness.
Headfort seems impossibly idyllic: The students have plenty of free time outdoors to build forts, play cricket, and chalk sidewalks. There’s even a young music instructor who talks to some boys about acceptable pranks. Taking part in the school’s production of Hamlet actually seems fun, with Amanda reassuring her actors that even famous thespians are a jumble of nerves before their performances.
You can’t imagine Headfort without the Leydens, and luckily for the school, neither can they. John says about retirement: “[We’d] just sit around doing less and less and getting more and more decrepit.” This may not be the focus of the doc, but it’s a crucial component nonetheless.
School Life opens Friday at West End Cinema.