School Life

Movie review by
Joyce Slaton, Common Sense Media
School Life Movie Poster Image
Boarding school doc has sweet messages; some smoking.
  • PG-13
  • 2017
  • 99 minutes

Parents say

age 7+
Based on 1 review

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Adult characters care deeply about the welfare of the children in their charge; they talk frequently and lovingly about what would be best for their development and future happiness. A headmaster frequently discusses morality with his school's students, teaching tolerance and respect for everyone, which conveys themes of empathy and compassion. "Be the change you want to see in the world," he tells his students. A little bit of the traditional British "stiff upper lip" approach to dealing with homesickness, etc., but the kids are always supported.

Positive Role Models & Representations

John and Amanda are both dedicated, passionate, and inspiring teachers who give their all to their students, even if John is occasionally gruff and blunt with them (both also frequently smoke cigarettes). The other teachers and administrators are equally dedicated; they discuss how to best inspire the students in several scenes. A coach tell his rugby team that even if a team member makes a mistake, teasing the teammate about it isn't OK: "No one makes a mistake on purpose. You need to support your teammates." Students are given many opportunities to try different things.


In a few scenes, teachers explain concepts that may confuse or upset young or sensitive viewers, such as the meaning behind the lyrics of English nursery rhyme "Oranges and Lemons" and how, in an earlier era, students at the school were beaten for disobedience. A few scenes of crying/upset kids who miss home or aren't feeling like they fit in.


Brief discussion of dating/marriage.


Cursing is infrequent, but there are a few uses of phrases like "bloody hell" and "it's s--t" (referring to a musical performance). A teacher calls a student a "bloody nuisance" (when the student isn't listening), but another teacher disagrees: "He's really a lovely boy."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

John and Amanda frequently smoke cigarettes; she has a smoker's voice and cough. Drinking is legal in Ireland at age 18; in several scenes, teachers imply or actually state that they expect students to sneak drinks before that age.

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."

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Adult Written byDavid R. September 29, 2017

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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?

  • How do John and Amanda demonstrate empathy and compassion as teachers at Headfort? Why are these important character strengths?

  • 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? 

Movie details

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