MY OLD SCHOOL

Reviewed by GREG KING

Documentary

Director: Jono McLeod

Stars: Alan Cumming, voices of Lulu, Clare Grogan, Dawn Steele, Joe Mcfadden, Gary Lamont, Brian MacKinnon.

My Old School is a quirky and unusual documentary that is constructed from a mix of archival footage, interviews and animation. 

In 1993 17-year-old Brandon Lee enrolled as a student at Bearsden Academy in Glasgow. He was a popular student even though his appearance was a bit odd. He claimed that his unusual looks were due to surgery following a car accident. He also claimed that he had spent some time travelling around Canada with his mother, an opera singer. Lee was quite bright and scored A’s on his exams. He also played the lead role in the school production of South Pacific.  

The only problem was that, in reality, Brandon was actually a 32-year-old man named Brian MacKinnon, who had graduated from Bearsden Academy thirteen years earlier. The story of how he convinced his classmates and even his teachers, many of whom had taught him thirteen years earlier, that he was 17 years old is a remarkable if bizarre story of a strange deception. In some ways it is reminiscent of Bart Layton’s film The Imposter which was about a French conman who pretended to be a 16-year-old American boy who had been missing for over three years. He managed to integrate himself into the family, who readily accepted him as their missing son despite some discrepancies. 

This strange story has been brought to the screen by writer/director Jono McLeod, who was a classmate of Lee in the 1990s. This is his feature film directorial debut, and Mcleod had convinced MacKinnon to be interviewed for the film. However, MacKinnon refused to appear on camera, so McLeod used the device of having actor Alan Cumming sit at a school desk and lip synch his dialogue. MacKinnon’s story unfolds through a mix of present-day interviews with his former fellow classmates, animated reenactments of key events, archival footage and school photographs, and plenty of television footage from news broadcasts once the unusual story broke and journalists tried to uncover the reasons behind the elaborate deception. It emerged that MacKinnon had enrolled in Dunedin University to study medicine, but once he failed his exams he dropped out. By pretending to be a young student he was attempting to have a second chance at pursuing his dream of a career in medicine. However, the film also raises many questions that remain unanswered, such as how much did his mother really know of what was happening?  

McLeod shot the film on a set specially constructed to resemble a typical Bearsden classroom. Cumming sits at a desk and looks into the camera, but there is something a little meta about his appearance here as he was apparently meant to play Brandon in a planned biopic in the 90s. His appearance here is a sly nudge and wink to a knowing audience. He has a twinkle in his eye and a sly smile, but this is something of a clumsy device and a distraction as MacKinnon’s own words suffice to fill in the gaps. Singer Lulu (To Sir With Love, etc) provides the voice of Mrs Holmes, the school’s admissions officer who was fooled by Brandon’s persona, and who refused to be interviewed for this film.  

The film also deals with the fallibility of memory as the former students share their initial impressions of Brandon, which turn out to be flawed, and they mainly have positive memories of Brandon. However, most of these former students are rather dull and not very interesting and it is hard to become emotionally invested in MacKinnon’s story or McLeod’s film.  

Undoubtedly this is an intriguing and bizarre story, but it is a good fit for a 60-minute tv documentary. Stretched out to 100 minutes it becomes repetitive and is not as engaging as it could have been with a tighter edit.  

★★

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