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My Old School Bends the Charming Sympathy Within a Scandal

Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Maybe it’s a moment played up more in movies and television, but who had a frustrated high school teacher in their day who laid down the challenge of “If you think it’s so easy, would you like to come up and teach the class?” Normally, that’s the adult in the room nearing their wit’s end with a certain overconfident or mouthy student. In your experiences, did that challenge work to shut down the distraction? Did anyone ever have the balls to actually do it? Did any succeed?

Though this may be an odd parallel to make, after watching the documentary My Old School, I’m willing to bet the chronicled subject, Brian MacKinnon, better known as “Brandon Lee” while attending Scotland’s Bearsden Academy, could have pulled that ruse off and taken over a classroom. After all, the man was already masquerading as a student. Why not swing the fantasy all the way to be the teacher too?

An animated student holds up a finger in response in a school classroom.
Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Made by former students of the now-closed nondenominational secondary school, this film collects the inside stories of what was quite the tabloid wildfire for its day. During the 1995 academic year, a boyish-looking 32-year-old man changed his hair, forged some paperwork, and infiltrated the very same school he attended during his teenage years to be a high school student again. True to the height of its scandal and the kind of intrigue fit for a movie, the revealed truths of the extensive lies of the Brandon Lee story will undoubtedly surprise all who explore My Old School. 

First and foremost, those watching My Old School will wrap their heads around two questions of this soft true crime scheme. The first is the consideration of reliving secondary school, ignoring whether or not they could even pull off hiding their age. Would they go back? They’ll do the math by taking their graduation year, adding 15 years, and reminiscing on what kind of person they were at 32 years old and what teen life was like at that time. Most probably would accept the adulthood they landed in versus how hard it was to be a teen at that time. Likely only a select few would wish for that kind of time machine and dive back into the social wringer.

The second premise-examining question for My Old School audiences is the big one of why one would you want to go back to secondary school? Would or won’t is easy. Now, it’s about mindset and finding reasons for this kind of risk. Are the reasons serious or superficial? What did you miss that you would want to experience, correct, or try again? How does taking this kind of massive risk help to change a personal past, present, or future?

The answers to those two questions are where sympathy becomes the engine of surprise in My Old School. As the opening credits present, the subject of the film “doesn’t want to show his face,” but is willing to be heard. Instead, Emmy-nominated actor Alan Cumming steps in as the physical proxy of Brian MacKinnon to lip-sync the quirks of body language and expression in characterizing MacKinnon’s words.

An animated group of high schoolers walk down a hallway.
Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Concurrently, more than a dozen Bearsden grads, including documentary writer-director Jono McLeod, all now in their forties, and a few former staff members come on camera to look back on the enigma that was their former classmate and pupil. Adding artistic panache, animation director Rory Lowe (Hallam Foe) and lead animator Scott Morriss (The Brilliant World of Tom Gates) created several animated vignettes that cartoonishly flesh out the recollected events being described by the witnesses.

I’ll let the documentary’s many testimonies, including MacKinnon’s own, instead of this review fully reveal the what and why aspects. However, what can be discussed and critiqued is the connective and emotional appeal of My Old School. Just when you think this would be a string of vented outrage and disturbed reactions to evil-labeled deception that drops jaws and boils blood, the mood of the room could not be more temperate, right down to Shelly Poole’s fittingly quaint musical score.

What unfolds in My Old School is a multi-layered story that questions various levels of perceived or actual harm. To a one, each of these former friends and classmates have positive and even forgiving things to share about “Brandon Lee.” In large and small ways outside of the media frenzy fallout, the duplicitous man made a difference for many of them in a formative year of their lives. Their level of hurt, if there was one, has healed with comforting pity for the maligned Brian MacKinnon.

MacKinnon’s own narrated admissions, including a 2002 video interview coda, convey a bracing honesty. He knows the listed wrongs of his actions. Still, the level of detail he put into this hoax and the relative ease by which it worked for its time is astounding. Brian’s tricky ingenuity is only outmatched by his conviction, one that continues to this day, for the betterment he was seeking through this attempted revamp towards his desired career path that would validate something meaningful for his life.

If you think My Old School would have made a compelling dramedy film, you wouldn’t be alone. As full-circle fate would have it, Alan Cumming was the actor originally attached to play MacKinnon for a theatrical treatment back in the late 1990s. The project never took off, so it’s a measure of sweet happenstance to see him in this special performance. His smirking charm and dancing eyes have not diminished with age. He submits a masterfully measured display of shrewd quirks to embody and extend the mystery.

Combining Cumming’s lifting presence, snippets of archival TV coverage, and the animated sequences, My Old School has beguiling charm mirroring the fascinating central figure and the wry smiles on the faces of the Bearsden alumni telling their yarns. Viewers will absorb this tall tale and ask how much fraudulence is either acceptable or too much in a true-life “fake it until you make it” story. There is an irreverent delight to be had measuring that scale person-to-person and case-by-case.

Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing here on Film Obsessive as the Editor-in-Chief and Content Supervisor for the film department. He also writes for his own website, Every Movie Has a Lesson. Don is one of the hosts of the Cinephile Hissy Fit Podcast on the Ruminations Radio Network and sponsored by Film Obsessive. As a school teacher by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a voting member of the nationally-recognized Critics Choice Association, Online Film Critics Society, North American Film Critics Association, International Film Society Critics Association, Internet Film Critics Society, Online Film and TV Association, and the Celebrity Movie Awards.

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