Synopsis: In 1993, 16-year-old Brandon Lee enrolled at Bearsden Academy, a preparatory school in an upper-middle-class suburb of Glasgow. After an initially awkward start, Lee — who had, until then, been privately tutored in Canada while on tour with his opera singer mom — would quickly become the school’s brightest and most popular pupil.
Stars: Alan Cumming
Director: Jono McLeod
Running Length: 104 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: As a spoiler-free movie review site, I like to keep as much of the plot developments under wraps and leave it to the viewer to experience the film as fresh as possible. Sometimes, the basic outline of a movie can make that difficult, and the documentary is frequently one of the trickier genres where I need to be extra on my game. I had a devil of a time thinking about that approaching the review of My Old School, director Jono McLeod’s look back at one strange year during secondary school and the classmate who left a lasting impression on him and his classmates. To say too much would be to rob McLeod’s carefully constructed narrative, but withholding information wouldn’t leave much to say.
McLeod makes great pains to conceal the twist, and I also feel like I should. So, if this review feels more like a vague dance-around plot than usual, it’s in service to your overall entertainment if you see this enjoyable docu-mystery. I had it spoiled for me, and I will admit that knowing the secret already, it managed to color the first half of the movie when I was supposed to be in the dark. Try if you can avoid finding out any more information than you need because My Old School has several head-turning curveballs to throw.
Interviewing an array of his former classmates, McLeod takes us back to 1995 when their school in Bearsden, Scotland, received a new student, Brandon Lee. Brandon couldn’t help but stand out from the other students with his tightly curled hair and odd facial features. Still, he made a good impression on the teachers and fell into a group of friends and school activities that fit the definition of an active participant in the high school experience. His professional maturity on stage acting in South Pacific was even called out by the stern headmaster, who didn’t dole out compliments easily. When he graduated, Brandon set his plans to attend medical school, and off he went to a nearby college to become a doctor.
Typically, this is where the tale would end for a preparatory school success story. Yet the tale of Brandon Lee was just beginning. McLeod and his classmates walk us through the experience of being in school with him and several odd events that occurred. Living with his grandmother after his opera-singer mother was killed in a car wreck and his father passed away, Lee would have friends over and treated people well…but it always appeared as if he were holding something back. Driving in a car with friends late one night, they noticed a police car appearing out of the murky darkness, and Brandon, thinking the siren in the distance was going to pull them over, turned to his friends and admitted that if he was pulled over and questioned, the name on his license might not match the one they knew…
Candid interviews with the former students reveal a close-knit class that bonded over the daunting school, its somewhat overbearing faculty, and the saga of Brandon Lee that touched them all in one way or another. While many know the whole story, some only know bits and pieces revealed during McLeod’s interviews. They learn the truth(s) as we do, and it’s fascinating to see decades of lies cleared up in a matter of seconds and the wave of disbelief that follows. Interspersed with photos and video footage from back then, McLeod tells much of that past time through animated segments that aren’t Pixar/Illumination quality but have that art class vibe, further establishing this as a home-spun project with heart.
The most impressive interview of all is with Brandon Lee himself. Not wanting to be interviewed on camera, Lee agreed to an audio interview, and McLeod enlisted actor Alan Cumming to lip-synch it on camera. At one time, Cumming (GoldenEye) was set to star in a film version of this wild story, but the project never got off the ground. In a way, My Old School is a full circle moment for the actor, who completely nails mouthing the words along with the audio so well that by the end, you forget he isn’t the one speaking the lines.
I think the film runs a little longer than needed, with some story padding that could be shored up with editing. Yet it’s not a boring tale to follow. I also get why McLeod would want to tell the story and rope his classmates into recounting their impressions. Still, My Old School doesn’t contain the kind of cathartic resolution or reflection by the filmmaker (who often appears on camera) to drive home why McLeod ultimately made it. Is it to close a chapter for the class who never really got the chance to end things on their terms? Or is it meant to start a new paragraph for a story that continues today?