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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that School Life is a gentle, moving, and uplifting documentary about an Irish boarding school. The adults at the school, particularly the two teachers at the heart of the film, care very much about their students, frequently talking about what would be best for them and trying to help them both academically and socially. They hug the students, listen to their problems, correct them when they're doing something wrong, and praise them when they've made the right step. Adults and kids discuss morality and the respect and dignity they owe each other and people in general, reinforcing themes of compassion and empathy. One teacher can be a little harsh, telling students to "go away" or saying that one student is a "bloody nuisance." But he also spends his off hours working with the students and once offers to tell a girl that he's a "silly old man" to soothe her hurt feelings. Two teachers smoke frequently, and there are a few references to underage drinking (the legal drinking age in Ireland is 18); one teacher implies that underage drinking is fine if done "responsibly" but also mentions that alcoholism is a major problem in Ireland. In other scenes, teachers talk about the history behind scary nursery rhyme lyrics and how, in the past, students were beaten for disobedience; there are also a couple of scenes of homesick kids crying. Swearing isn't frequent but includes a few phrases like "bloody hell" and "it's s--t."
What's the story?
At Headfort, the only elementary-age boarding school in Ireland, SCHOOL LIFE on an 18th-century estate is steeped in tradition -- but it's hardly stuffy. Longtime teacher John Leyden instructs students in Latin and math, but his heart really lies in the curriculum that he leads outside of school hours, when he encourages his young students to join the school's rock bands and perform for their classmates. Meanwhile, his wife, Amanda, connects with her students through literature and drama, coaching even shy students to get up on stage and perform. The couple has been teaching at Headfort for almost half a century, but as they age, an uncertain future is looming. Is it time to retire? And if they do, whatever will they do with themselves? As viewers watch another year at Headfort unspool, one thing is clear: When (if?) John and Amanda finally leave the school, the loss will be deeply felt on both sides.
Is it any good?
Sweet, gentle, and authentic, this film chronicling a year at an Irish boarding school is the very best kind of observational documentary: one that ends with viewers feeling they've met new friends. A cynic -- or an inattentive viewer -- might complain that nothing really happens in School Life: Students horse around on the school's grounds, they noodle around on instruments, they sit in classrooms and rehearsal spaces discussing their lessons and each other. But in these slowly meted-out glances into the lives of the students and their teachers, we come to understand what an impressive place Headfort is, largely due to the people who work there. We get to know two teachers best: Amanda, a force of nature with an eyebrow piercing and an infectious love of the written word, and John, an outwardly gruff taskmaster who hopes that introducing his students to David Bowie and Jimi Hendrix will impart lessons about joy and rebellion. But John and Amanda are just two in a heavenly chorus of caring teachers who movingly fret about the past, present, and future of the children in their care.
And then there are the students, who mostly rush past the screen in small crowds, gossiping and giggling. A few take shape more solidly: a young dyslexic boy who sometimes acts the fool because he fears he's not noticed at all, a girl with a checkered school record, a sad-eyed girl whom it seems no one can reach. We're almost at the movie's end before we hear her say a word -- but she gets there. She smiles! And so do we. It's a small happening, in a small and quiet movie. But in its own unassuming way, these people, and this movie, will get to you.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about how Headfort School compares to the schools you've been to. How is it different from a typical American elementary school? Do the students act differently toward their teachers than American students? Do the teachers treat their students differently?
Why does John say late in School Life that he's glad a student was acting up in her dormitory? Wouldn't that usually be something that would annoy a teacher? What is it about this student, or about John's hopes for her future, that makes him feel differently? How does John show that he cares about his students? Does he always speak to them with affection?
This movie ends with a class of Headfort students graduating. Why do you think most movies about school end with graduation? What is it about this moment in time that's cinematic and meaningful?
- In theaters: September 8, 2017
- On DVD or streaming: September 8, 2017
- Cast: John Leyden, Amanda Leyden
- Directors: Neasa Ní Chianáin, David Rane
- Studio: Magnolia Pictures
- Genre: Documentary
- Character strengths: Compassion, Empathy
- Run time: 99 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: brief strong language, and smoking
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