Originally released under the title, In Loco Parentis, School Life follows the students of Headfort, Ireland’s only remaining primary level boarding school. For those whose Latin is a bit rusty, the original title translates to “in the absence of a parent,” and while that concept can be applied literally to the students sent to the school, it also applies–in a figurative sense–to the teachers who nurture those students.
Chief among them are John and Amanda Leyden, who started teaching at Headfort on the same day in the early ’70s and are now the only permanent residents living on the school’s grounds. Though the students are the film’s ostensible subjects, the Leydens and the influence they have on the children, are filmmakers Neasa Ní Chianáin and David Rane’s (whose children attended Headfort at the time) true focus.
Though the concept sounds like a variation on Michael Apted’s 7 Up series, Chianáin and Rane–who cite D. A. Panabaker as inspiration–go for a more observational style. Indeed, the camera often feels like just another student in the room. Though Rane says the kids often mugged for the camera at the beginning, they grew accustomed to the cameras over the two years of filming (though the film is made up of only that second year) and the trust the kids had in them by then is apparent throughout.
Case in point: Eliza. While the other students scream declarations of war in make-shift forts or ramble on (sometimes hilariously) about gay marriage, Eliza only says a handful of words. She sulks in the background of group shots or stands with a blank expression on her face as she dutifully plays the keyboard for the school’s rock band. Her appearances often read as visual jokes, but her shyness and the Leydens’ attempts to pull her out of it are also one of the film’s most-compelling storylines.
That said, “storyline” is perhaps too strong a word. Though the filmmakers’ hands-off approach may have elicited more naturalistic behavior from the students, it also leaves the film a little formless. We have a vague sense of how much time is passing through off-hand comments about the kids’ progress or the occasional shots of the terrain surrounding the school changing with the seasons, but the sometimes mind-numbing regimentation of normal school life is absent. There’s a lack of momentum and while we want to see these kids succeed, not setting that story to a clock robs it of some urgency.
However, in the grand scheme of things, that is a relatively minor issue. School Life is a pleasant film about the quiet, pain-staking work of engaged educators. Change doesn’t often come quickly for the average child. Nurturing them is about the accumulation of effort and Chianáin and Rane understand that. Caring for these children in the way the Leydens do seems like the simplest thing in the world, but to the children who learn from them, it can make all the difference. As John says after talking with Amanda about Eliza’s transformation by the end of the school year, “wish you could bottle that and sell it.” Chianáin and Rane have done exactly that.