Fjords Reviews

Move Over Hogwarts—The Practical Magic Is at Headfort
School Life—

A Film Review by: Jennifer Parker

September 07, 2017



School Life - poster Maybe it’s the fairytale castle in the verdant lushness that can only exist in Ireland. Perhaps it’s the somewhat beatnik headmaster telling a roomful of children between the ages of seven and thirteen that they are already in charge of their own lives and discovering that his words are anything but trite. If you think Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has an endless stream of eccentrics, the real life Irish boarding school, Headfort has no shortage of colorful characters and tousle–haired teacher, John Leyden is a standout. John and his wife Amanda have taught at Headfort since the current headmaster, now fifty–something Dermot Dix, was a student. There’s some argument as to how long—forty or forty-one years. No one is certain. Behind the cigarette smoking, sometimes bitingly direct (John), almost tragically unhip couple save Amanda’s eyebrow piercing lies what clearly are two gifted teachers. School Life is a documentary that ultimately asks the question: Will the Leyden’s near half a century cultivation of future generations live on, or will it disappear like their temporary housing of almost fifty years—destined to be flattened once they move out?

Using the fly-on-the-wall camera technique that suggest the contemporary cinéma vérité documentaries of Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing (Jesus Camp), directors Neasa Ní Chianáin and David Rane capture the dynamic of tenderness and passion that characterizes the teacher’s relationships with their students. Though some of the children misunderstand John’s instinctive “tough love” techniques, all seem to revere him and want nothing more than to impress him whether it comes to a math lesson or playing the electric guitar or drums in his garage band. John adores all the kids. He worries that one of the shyest students, Eliza, “will spend her whole life five yards back from what everybody is doing.” A flurry of gray-haired charisma, Amanda nurtures her charges, including Florie, an insecure child model, who arrives mid-year from London. There’s Ted who in most schools would be the class clown but in Headfort is a student who happens to be dyslexic but is set up for success as much as students headed for Eton.

A scene from SCHOOL LIFE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
A scene from SCHOOL LIFE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

The implicit trust between the parents, teachers and children is remarkable. It takes a special type of parent to send their child to Headfort—a secular school where children climb trees, build elaborate forts, play in rock bands, learn Latin and about same sex marriage with equal gravitas. One of the children concludes “Sometimes, it is better to be gay, than to be single.” Ted’s confirmation is arranged to not interfere with a school production of Hamlet. He’s the ghost and eye–brow pierced Mrs. Leyden is literally biting her knuckles about losing Ted who has worked harder than anyone to learn his lines.

A scene from SCHOOL LIFE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
A scene from SCHOOL LIFE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Miss an extracurricular activity for more than a few days and you’re in for the wrath of John who tends to take the fickleness of children personally. But it’s clear who’s in charge in the Leyden household--Amanda has no patience for her husband’s abruptness with the children and you can see he hates disappointing his wife of over 40 years. Filmmakers Chianáin and Rane spent a year observing the school, gaining the trust of the children and faculty, disappearing into the background, privy to tears of children, intimate glances and shared cigarettes between Amanda and John and moments so funny it’s hard to believe cameras weren’t dropped. John and Amanda wax on about retirement and perhaps having a home of their own one day. Though they fear without teaching they’d “just sit around doing less and less getting more and more decrepit.” The documentary School Life with its delightful cast of characters, is magical in its “own peculiar way.”


A Magnolia Pictures Release
100 minutes
Opens September 8, 2017