My Old School

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Writer and Director: Jono McLeod

It is often said that our school days are the best, but would we really go back and relive them, given the opportunity? Brandon Lee did. In the early 1990s, at the age of 30, he went back to his school in East Dunbartonshire, but he pretended that he was 17 and everybody believed him. This enthralling documentary, made by someone who knew him, is a searing portrait of ambition, and an examination of Margaret Thatcher’s brutal methods to encourage working-class aspiration.

My Old School begins dizzyingly as time periods are merged, and animation is juxtaposed with talking heads and archive news footage. The media had a field day with the story when Brandon Lee’s lies were discovered and there were plans to make a movie about his life, with Alan Cumming as the lead. That film was never made, but 30 years later Cumming returns to lip-synch Lee’s words. Lee himself didn’t want his face to be in the film, and, taking into account the notoriety that still surrounds him, it’s understandable that he doesn’t want to be recognised on the street. And it seems that he still lives in the area where he grew up.

Bearsden is on the edge of Glasgow, and is a posh part of the city that is home to doctors and lawyers. There are a few council homes but most of the large detached houses belong to an affluent class. The school there was a good one – it’s been bulldozed down now to make room for more housing – and regularly sent pupils to university. One day in 1993, a new boy arrived: the 30-year old Lee.

He was a hit with the teachers and pupils alike. Everybody wanted to know him. Jono McLeod’s gathers a wealth of his old school friends to discuss how they were intrigued by Lee’s Canadian accent and the story of his opera-singer mother’s death. They thought he was 17 and liked the fact that he drove a car, taking them to clubs in town. He also made an effort to be friends with outcasts, and there is a touching story about how he helped one young black pupil, Stefan, do better with his schoolwork. Under Lee’s protection, Stefan was no longer bullied. When Brian was teased for liking 90s pop duo 2 Unlimited, Lee suggested cooler music to buy.

His real identity is revealed when he goes on holiday, but intriguingly there are different versions of the events leading up to the discovery. Still, there are greater surprises to come in McLeod’s film. We find out why Lee – or Brian MacKinnon, to give him his real name – went back to school and more about his family life. His mother had moved to Bearsden on purpose to give her son a better chance at becoming a doctor. He needed the grades in order to study medicine at university. Without them he wouldn’t be able to get in. So back to school he went.

Lip-synching Lee’s words, Cumming is cold, serious and deluded. It’s hard to feel sorry for Lee, despite the fact that he was a model student helping his classmates through their tumultuous teenage years. There’s something chilling in the way he remembers these days, not enjoying them at all, his determination to become a doctor being the force that helped to maintain his disguise. He doesn’t appear to remember his contemporaries kindly, which is at odds with how they remember him.

The animated sequences suggest a different Brandon Lee. He seems happy with his new friends, dancing around with a beer in his hand. It’s as if he has found a circle of good friends for the first time in his life. His cartoon image is softer and gentler than Cumming’s distance and seriousness. And then old news footage shows another Brandon in interviews and photographs. It’s hard to know which Brandon is the real one. But the point is, there was never a real Brandon. Or was there? The fact that the talking heads still refer to him as Brandon implies that he was once real enough.

At 105 minutes, McLeod’s film could be a little shorter. There’s a point in the middle when much of the information is repeated, causing rather a lull in what is otherwise a thrilling narrative. Lulu and Clare Grogan provide voices for two of the schoolteachers, and the whole film is polished and confident. As the camera turns away from Lee in the closing minutes, the focus is more on his friends who believed in his identity. They still can’t believe they were so easily duped. And yet neither do they seem to hold any anger for him. Perhaps their version of Brandon still exists.

My Old School is released in UK and Eire cinemas on 19th August.

The Reviews Hub Score:

Will the real Brandon stand up?

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The Reviews Hub Film Team is under the editorship of Maryam Philpott.

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