Some of the best documentaries feature tales that are stranger than fiction, like the amputated foot at the center of Finders Keepers, the earnest competitiveness in Air Guitar Nation, or the mind-snapping twists of the true crime gem The Imposter. No matter the subject, a great documentary can lure you in with its bizarre premise, then envelop you with its atmosphere, its heart, and its jaw-dropping revelations. Despite its quaint title, My Old School proves to be just such a film, unfolding a collection of recollections from former classmates to depict a full, entertaining, and at times perturbing portrait of a Scottish scandal.
In 1993, a new student marched into the halls of a Scottish secondary school and joining a bunch of 16-year-olds in sex education classes, wild nights out, and even the school play. From the very start, there was something different about Brandon Lee, who boasted a tragic backstory, dreamed of being a doctor, and relished ’80s music. Still, like in any American teen movie worth its hair gel, he made fast friends, rose through the ranks of popularity, and then — well, let’s just say that when his secret came out, the whole town was thrown into tumult.
Sure, you could Google what went down, but then you’d be missing out, because My Old School unfurls this story in a fascinating and deeply personal way: Director Jono McLeod was one of Lee’s classmates. Alongside his old friends, McLeod sits before the camera, set against a backdrop of a classroom with dusty chalkboards and sturdy wooden desks, stepping through the story as they know it. Perhaps because the director is one of them, there’s a disarming lack of embarrassment and an enchanting jocularity to these interviewees. As one classmate puts it, they weren’t the only ones who were fooled by Lee. Teasing McLeod, she laughs, “So [were] you, you mug!”
My Old School faces a unique obstacle with supreme savviness.
Credit: Magnolia Pictures
While many of Lee’s classmates were willing to appear on camera and share their memories of this ’90s-era scandal, Lee required a caveat. The opening title cards of My Old School explain he agreed to an audio interview but did not want his face shown on camera. Rather than shooting him in silhouette, as if Lee was a state’s witness on the run from dangerous criminals, McLeod hired an actor to lip-sync these audio interviews, giving his words a face and a visual performance that proves deliciously clever.
Not just any actor would do, of course. McLeod tapped Alan Cumming, the iconic Scottish actor who, it just so happens, was once eyed to play Lee in a narrative film about his life that never came to fruition. Though this is a cheeky nod to the story’s complicated nature, the casting is jarring at first. Cummings is recognizably a pro, whereas the rest of the interview subjects are unguarded civilians. However, this unsettling distinction urges the audience to question everything Lee says from the very start. Even now, he’s still hiding. And what a hiding place: behind the face of a beloved, award-winning thespian of the stage and screen who brings a mischievous wink and sly sophistication to every outlandish anecdote, including the nonchalant insistence that Lee has the mind control powers of a Jedi. Yeah, and that’s just a taste!
My Old School pulls from Daria in a sensational way.
Credit: Magnolia Pictures
Playing the contemporary Lee, Cumming wears gray hair, glasses, and the conservative garbs of a respectable everyman, but his performance extends to the documentary’s many re-enactments of Lee’s time among his 16-year-old classmates. Rather than pulling a Pen15, where adults essentially cosplay as kids in a live-action comedy style, My Old School animates its re-enactments with voice acting from performers. Better yet, it does so in a style that is heavily influenced by MTV’s hit ’90s cartoon Daria.
The students and their teachers are illustrated as caricatures, which like the Cumming casting proves sublimely smart. The Daria style of bold colors and thick black outlines urges Gen X’ers and elder millenials into a cozy nostalgia, priming us for scenes of high school hijinks. It works perfectly thematically to portray teen bullying, reckless partying, and cool kid makeovers in this way, but it’s also a nifty solution to keep Lee’s face off camera, helping obscure the secret at this story’s center. Once the cat is out of the bag, archival footage from the school and Lee’s subsequent apology tour will reveal his ’90s face, creating a terrific payoff for the doc’s shocking climax. And, again, yes, you can totally search for this, but My Old School is more fun when you’re along for the ride.
My Old School confronts unsettling realizations.
McLeod’s thoughtfully conducted interviews with his classmates invite audiences into the excitement of the reunion and moreover the thrill of a hot gossip session. Now grown-ups, they joke, laugh, and gleefully detail how their school’s principal was like a self-styled Batman, complete with an intense sense of justice and a long dark cape. (It’s a comparison that the animation happily plays into!) However, as the story turns to Lee’s lies, an unease creeps in. The subjects are encouraged to reflect on what this revelation meant to them then — and what it means now.
What would it mean to know your friendship was built on fiction? How would it feel to see old footage with full awareness of what was going on behind the scenes? How might your opinion of Lee’s family change when you realize they had to know what was really going on? What must it feel like to realize how deep these deceptions went?
McLeod doesn’t rush past the discomfort of such scenes. As he did with the frenzied joy of the initial gossip sessions, he welcomes us in to share in the classmates’ current discomfort. It’s so profound that you can practically feel the hard wood chair beneath you and smell the musty chalk dust in the air.
From there, the interviews with Lee become more pointed, digging into his deceptions and urging for answers. As you might expect from an internationally recognized liar, his responses are slippery, unsatisfying, and sometimes infuriating. You can’t help but wonder, is he lying to us — or to himself? And does it matter?
My Old School is a mind-blowing must-see.
Don’t fret. McLeod won’t leave us in this dark place. True to the nature of this story, he transitions from blithe youth to somber adult realizations to moving on. For Lee, that means something uniquely strange. But for the rest of his class, there are celebratory shots of them, then and now. Black-and-white school pictures are placed against moving modern footage, showcasing their work, their children, and their hobbies, all with equal relish. The school photos even roll into the credits, earnestly reminding us of our naive youth, and how it shaped who we’d become, be that a sneering teacher, a plucky theater kid, or the infamous Brandon Lee.
In the end, My Old School balances its nostalgia and giddiness with a sophisticated dose of reflection and uncomfortable realizations. So, while the story feels like the stuff of a Hollywood teen comedy, McLeod rejects a mindlessly soothing happy ending in favor of something more complicated and compelling. As soon as I finished My Old School out of Sundance 2022, I wanted to watch it again to see how the experience changed when I already knew the big reveal. And while it’s a jolting blast to discover this story through McLeod’s mindful retelling, this doc is even more enthralling on a second watch. You see the edges of the puzzle pieces, where they fit and where they didn’t, and you’re left to wonder why no one noticed earlier. However, because this story is told with such sincere empathy toward all of its characters, you won’t walk away feel smug or judgemental. You might simply wonder where you’d fit in such a wild tale.
UPDATE: Nov. 17, 2022, 10:03 a.m. EST This review originally ran on July 22, 2022, tied to My Old School’s theatrical release. It has been republished with updated availability information, as the film is now on Hulu.