In 1993, a 16-year-old boy named Brandon Lee enrolled at a secondary school in an upscale neighborhood in Scotland. A few things immediately distinguished him from his peers: his mature appearance, his intellectual superiority, and his Canadian accent. Still, he gradually acclimated to Bearsden Academy and found a friend group of classmates that accepted him. He seemed to excel at everything he tried, even landing the starring role in the school’s production of South Pacific in spite of no known prior theatrical experience. But then, some inconsistencies began to add up in his story, leading to the shocking revelation that he was not who he claimed to be.
My Old School recounts the astonishing true story of this larger-than-life student via interviews with his now middle-aged classmates and extensive animated sequences representing their teenage school days. While director and former classmate Jono McLeod got many of his school chums to appear on film for the project, the still-enigmatic Lee agreed to only audio recording, which is where Alan Cumming enters the picture.
McLeod takes the unique approach of having Cumming act as a surrogate for Lee, lip synching and acting out Lee’s audio in character. It’s odd to see the normally fabulous Cumming portraying Lee as a bland, unkempt old man, especially as Cumming’s famously Scottish pronunciation is rendered in Lee’s rounded Canadian accent As a fellow Scot, Cumming surely was attracted to the project due to Lee’s notorious status in his home country even three decades later. He’s obviously the cherry on top of the production to lure viewers in, but his overall contributions are fairly limited since Lee’s voice is only one of many McLeod chooses to weave into his tapestry.
The overabundance of participants is ultimately a drawback to the strength of the film. At 1 ¾ hours length, the film is just too long for a fascinating but fairly straightforward story that could be effectively told as an anecdote. It’s great that McLeod was able to reconnect with and employ the participation of so many of his former classmates, well over a dozen, as well as assorted teachers, but very few offer any unique perspective since so many of the memories were shared experiences. This scope creep bleeds into the animated sequences as well, as we’re subjected to extended toons for day-to-day school activities that aren’t essential to the core tale.
Aside from the length, the documentary film is an enjoyable and light-hearted take on a story that’s so crazy it could only be true. McLeod keeps things upbeat, even when confronting Lee’s female co-star from South Pacific for her reappraisal of the musical’s kiss knowing what she knows now. He doesn’t seem interested in vilifying Lee, he just wants to share this wild story with the world instead of just his mates down at the pub. That mission is winningly accomplished, it could just use a few trims for time.
My Old School is now playing in limited theatrical release. For more information including theaters, visit the Magnolia Pictures website.