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Review: School Life

October 6, 2017

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

John and Amanda Leyden are an older married couple who have spent over forty years working together and teaching students at the Headfort School, the last remaining preparatory boarding school in Ireland for elementary school kids aged 7 to 13.

John and Amanda are the subjects of School Life, an engaging fly on the wall documentary from co-directors Neasa Ní Bguanáin and David Rane that takes us into the classrooms, school halls and dormitories to show the lives of a group of students over their last year at Headfort.

The school itself was converted from a gorgeous old mansion that is tucked away in the rolling hills of County Meath, and it provides a wondrous playground for the kids to come of age in.  We follow the students as John helps them rehearse for their rock band, and as Amanda instills in them a love of reading and prepares them for the school play, seeing firsthand how these activities help them overcome struggles with shyness and self-esteem in an environment where everyone is given equal opportunity.  The school acts “In Loco Parentis,” with the teachers not only helping their students in the classrooms, but also guiding them along in other areas of their young lives, with many of them being far away from their parents.

While they do focus on teaching the required curriculum, the school also gives the kids a healthy amount of freedom, allowing them to help set the path for their own education and generally just be kids, giving them free reign to hang out with each other and play around on the vast forest property surrounding the school.  The film is engaging in the little moments that reveal how well the non-denominational school is doing to help shape these young minds, like a surprisingly nuanced classroom discussion about gay marriage, which was undergoing a referendum in Ireland at the time.

The film falls into a rhythm of showing the lives of the students and their daily routines at the school, with the camera never interfering in the action and merely just observing things as they happen.  The results are charming and engaging to watch, showing a group of students who are allowed to blossom through learning, and the inspiring teachers who are helping guide them.

School Life is now playing in limited release at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto, tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

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