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Stranger-than-fiction doesn’t come much stranger than “My Old School,” a cheerfully gobsmacked if overly twisted-up documentary about one student’s second fifth year of secondary school at Glasgow’s Bearsden Academy.
Before proceeding, a note for readers: It would ensure frustration and risk futility to write about this film without discussing its subject. But before this critic does so, those unfamiliar with the tabloid-famous story of seemingly 17-year–old ‘Brandon Lee’ and willing to go in blind are advised to read no further. That’s because, although “My Old School” digs into Scotland’s most notorious high-school hoax, director Jono McLeod teases out this reveal across his film’s first half, making a slight spectacle of concealing the real story he’s telling and going so far as to misdirect the audience.
A grating ploy in recent documentary cinema—also see: “The Imposter,” “Three Identical Strangers,” “Misha and the Wolves”—such a choice is admissible but extraneous in “My Old School,” a film so directly about identity, deception, and the social conditions that create both that it scarcely needs the set-up. A cursory Internet search would clue audiences into the scandalous truth of Brandon’s career at Bearsden. And both the cheeky title and poster, which features 57-year-old Scottish actor Alan Cumming seated at a school desk—his expression unreadable and thus sinister, given his surroundings—threaten to give the game away upfront, making McLeod’s insistence on staging it as a rug-pull feel, well, insistent.
In any case, upon arriving at Bearsden in 1993, Brandon Lee (who conspicuously shared a name with the American actor fatally shot on set months earlier) baffled his schoolmates and teachers. He was taller and more mature than his peers, with an “unplaceable” accent that often slipped out of place. He inexplicably knew answers that hadn’t yet been taught, to such a degree that his biology teacher fawned over a student teaching her biology. His face, too, had a strange quality to it that no one could identify. Still, Brandon’s appearance and the more suspicious details of his backstory—he was from Canada; his mother, an opera diva, had died tragically; he was scarred in the accident that killed her—served mostly to amuse classmates, while handing class bullies easy ammunition. Some called him “thirtysomething.” The teachers, meanwhile, considered Brandon a star pupil, and even managed to parlay his preternaturally deep understanding of “Death of a Salesman” into a leading role in the school’s production of “South Pacific.”
McLeod, who attended Bearsden at the time, captures this larger-than-life character with an array of techniques. Animation reminiscent of trendy ’90s cartoons like “Daria” and “The Magic School Bus” adds a fantastical flair to scenes described from 1993, while news footage and unearthed photographs come into play later, as the film dispenses with its reticence around the facts. Cumming, in a chillingly mask-like physical performance, lip-syncs words spoken aloud by Brandon, who agreed to an audio interview with McLeod but refused to show his face for reasons eventually made clear.
“Brandon,” it emerges, was not Brandon at all, but instead Brian MacKinnon, who was 32 when he re-enrolled at Bearsden posing as a 17-year-old pupil. Though he’d studied at the same school in the late 1970s, none of the teaching staff recognized MacKinnon, who’d permed his hair as part of his disguise. The imposter’s explanation to the headmaster that he’d recently relocated to the area, meanwhile, was accepted without further scrutiny after a quick address check.
The astonishing particulars of MacKinnon’s ruse—not revealed until 1995, a year after he’d aced his higher-grade exams and begun studying medicine at Dundee University—made him infamous in Scotland, and the case has understandably stuck with those who only thought they knew him. One such peer, McLeod stays mostly off-camera throughout “My Old School,” which interviews over 30 of his former schoolmates and teachers in a rueful but good-humored attempt to figure out how they all could have been taken in by such a ludicrous deception.
As a result, “My Old School” often feels as warmly provincial as a class reunion, though the film’s analysis of what happened is stymied by its participants’ lingering mixture of bemusement and chagrin. “Bearsden Academy was a bit of a time warp,” offers one pupil, Nicola Walker, not quite keeping the grin off her face. “I remember it being very old-fashioned,” adds another, identified as Valerie.
McLeod himself often seems content to have a laugh about the whole affair. The animation is especially rife with gags, such as one in which the young/old MacKinnon heads to class and is faced with directions posted at the end of a hallway: one points to History, the other Modern Studies. Also amusing but unrevealing is McLeod’s decision to seat his interviewees at school desks, cramped postures and bewildered expressions underlining that central question of how MacKinnon was able to pull off such a discomfiting masquerade, and why.
“It was like being behind enemy lines without an enemy,” MacKinnon recounts boastfully at one point, an observation “My Old School” doesn’t initially pry at so much as amplify, fixating on this interloper’s mesmeric charms until he appears more myth than man. At first, McLeod’s playful, even nostalgic approach squares with the sentiments of his interviewees, who recall MacKinnon as both an odd duck but a folk hero. But the film grows darker as McLeod peers into schoolmates’ memories, surfacing half-forgotten incidents and unanswered questions. Sequences in which he points out inconsistencies in their recollections—or proves, using video footage, that the reality of MacKinnon’s actions was worse than they’d remembered—mark the film at its most disturbing and effective.
The film’s soundtrack is piled high with era-appropriate earworms, but none land as potently as the opening needle-drop, a synthed-out cover of Ace of Base’s “The Sign” that keeps echoing out on the final line of the chorus (“But where do you belong?”) until it registers somewhere between an existential query and a schoolyard taunt. “My Old School” straddles that middle-ground as well, speculating as to the inner workings of a troubled mind but more often settling for the familiar, picaresque pleasures of a great yarn colorfully retold.
In limited theaters July 22 and expanding July 27.