Sundance Film Festival 2022 Review: My Old School ★★★★★

My Old School from filmmaker Jono McLeod lifts the lid on one of Scotland’s strangest hoaxes: a story that examines ambition, social class, and deception with a sense of sharp wit and intoxicating style. The feature sees McLeod visit the story of Brandon Lee, his former classmate at Bearsden Academy, whose unusual and jaw-dropping story prompted a media frenzy at the time.

McLeod tells the story of student Brandon Lee, who in 1993 joined Glasgow’s suburban Bearsden Academy as a late arrival fifth year student. The son of a tragically passed globetrotting opera diva, privately tutored in Canada; Lee was quick to leave an impression on his new classmates despite his initial awkwardness and curious looks. Bonding with bullied students and impressing teachers with his wealth of knowledge, Lee even fell into the lead role in the school musical, however, the school and his classmates were left shellshocked after revelations about Brandon surfaced causing nationwide furore.

My Old School utilises a number of engaging creative approaches to retell Lee’s story from the casting of Alan Cumming who lip-syncs Lee’s words, to the use of vibrant visuals from animation director Rory Lowe and lead animator Scott Morriss. Talking head contributions from former classmates and teachers of Lee bring the story to life with vivid anecdotes of their own school experiences and those in particular with the mysterious Lee. The success of these contributions in part lies in the subjects’ comfort with McLeod who manages to conduct natural, witty and grounded conversations with his former schoolmates. My Old School utilises the fact that the cast are well aware of how unsurprised they should be about Lee’s revelations given their well vocalised suspicions about his identity at the time – this in part, adds to the sense of playfulness that trickles throughout the feature

Tonally McLeod embraces this sense of playful fun – in part massively heightened by the striking pop art animations and their well-pitched voiceovers – but also blends this with the sense of ominous mystery that a tale as surprising as Brandon Lee’s deserves to be told with. Lee’s narrations build this sense of tension, whilst open-ended statements and suspicions shared by his classmates plant the seeds for the shocking revelations that the film saves for its third act.

McLeod manages to tease out some intriguing themes in this tale adding a sense of depth amongst the levity and mystery. Through this unreliable narrator’s story we gain a sense of ambition and drive centred on Lee’s unwavering desire to be admitted into medical school, the idea that despite the class or location one is born into, hard work and perseverance will prevail. Yet Lee’s story is one that does not play out as simply as these themes suggest, leading to his deception which shines throughout the very core of My Old School. The human consequences of this deception are seen in unsettling reappraisals of Lee’s role in school musical South Pacific co-starring in a romantic lead role alongside a sixteen year old fellow classmate who describes the experience in hindsight as icky.

My Old School conjures up some wonderful nostalgia for its nineties setting, laced with a sense of Glasgow charm. Depictions of Bearsden as Spam Valley prompt some amusing discussion between interviewees, whilst anecdotes about Lee turning a fellow student away from the nineties techno sounds of 2Unlimited to more mature eighties punk-pop bands like Joy Division showcase Lee’s genuine interactions with his peers. Playful camaraderie from interview subjects amusingly reflecting on the events of their time at Bearsden and recollections of harsh teachers are quick to help us warm to the interview subjects, whilst also capturing a sense that Lee’s story was something of a victim to the High School rumour mill with the truth shapeshifting from its original form in some cases. As revelations are unveiled and the bizarre circumstances in which these came to light are shared, My Old School intriguingly re-evaluates much of its content with a newfound perspective, sharing Lee’s motivations for his actions and capturing the resulting media storm which later ensued.

Cumming brings a magnetism to the screen as he emotively conveys Lee’s justifications and thoughts on his own actions, with the actor managing to subtly convey the words of an unreliable narrator with an icy control. Bringing his expected charm and conviction to the fold, Cumming also laces the role with an ominous self-righteousness capturing Lee’s unwavering desire to achieve his goal of reaching medical school with a sense of obsessive determination. Other high profile contributions include the film’s closing theme provided by iconic Scots songstress Lulu who also takes on a small voice role in the project, whilst up and coming Scottish indie electronic pop act HYYTS bring an impressive new version of Ace of Base’s The Sign to the feature.

My Old School hooks us in with its fascinating premise and slowly unravels the mysteries at its heart with a sense of wit, vibrancy and well-executed tension. McLeod has crafted a mesmerising take on a truly bizarre piece of Scottish history.