Headfort is the only primary-age boarding school left in Ireland. The documentary "School Life" follows an elderly married couple, Amanda and John, who are contemplating retirement from teaching after nearly 50 years at Headfort.
Spanning the length of a single school year, "School Life" is a rather unusual documentary in that it is not exposing untoward business practices or the demonic proclivities of cults. It is simply a lovely exploration of an 18th century estate which has been turned into an exquisite institution of learning, and the devoted couple who are an inspiration to us all.
John is quite the character, sporting the wild hair one associates with a mad scientist. Besides teaching Maths, Scripture and Latin, he staffs the rock band at Headfort, managing to form a rather good group year after year.
Amanda's love is connecting with her pupils through books. She seems to have read everything that has ever been published, with her particular favorites always at hand. She also supervises the annual play at Headfort --- never an easy task, but in the end, the students come together to present a tour-de-force performance.
"School Life" examines the pros and cons of boarding school. Homesickness must be dealt with at the beginning of the term. Not every young child is cut out for parental absence. We also witness the distinct change in some students. Eliza, a very quiet young woman who never smiles, becomes positively chatty, according to John, by the end of the year.
Directors Neasa Ní Chianáin and David Rane, who also co-wrote the script and story with Etienne Essery, have captured the charm and mystique of boarding school. And they have allowed us to watch as Amanda and John, who met as young teachers at Headfort --- and never left the premises --- still sneak their cigarette breaks through an open window.
While dissecting the progress of their charges, they must also contemplate the seriousness of their impending retirement. What will they do --- how will they remain young at heart if they leave?
"School Life" is a delightful little film. It's a true respite from some of the other nonsense at the cinema.
Opinion: See It Now!
"School Life" is not a documentary in the traditional sense. No one is interviewed, nobody offers their opinion about any subject while looking into a camera. All we see are ever-changing snippets of life at the Headfort School in Ireland, focusing on two long-time teachers who happen to be married.
Amanda Leyden teaches literature and is the main cog in the school drama program. Her husband, John, teaches a variety of subjects and is the driving force behind the school band. Together they get amazing results from their students, not because of tough love, but because of love, period. They seem to need their students as much as their students depend upon them for an education.
All the children appear to thrive in this environment, including a reclusive co-ed named Eliza Summerville, a taciturn brunette who rarely speaks and smiles less. Teddy is a boy who threatens to leave the school, but ends up excelling. And another student is exultant when he learns of his acceptance into the prestigious British institution, Eton College.
Students reside and learn at Headfort for the entire school year. We watch in rapt attention as they interact with each other and the school staff. One on-going episode has two likeable girls competing --- sort of -- to be the drummer in the school band. Another young girl is encouraged to sing in front of classmates because, as John says, "you are only surrounded by friends here".
Meanwhile, Amanda and John, veteran teachers of 45 plus years, are realizing the twilight of their lives is rapidly approaching. They find private time to discuss their feelings at an open window of the school where they can freely smoke cigarettes.
"School Life" may be the only Irish film where subtitles are not needed to understand the dialogue. Nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2017, co-directors Neasa Ní Chianáin and David Rane can take pride that their movie was named Best Documentary at the San Francisco International Film Festival this year.
Opinion: See It Now!