Alan Cumming Grounds Poignant Scottish Documentary ‘My Old School’

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'My Old School' combines animation, lip-syncing and Alan Cumming to tell the story of a fascinating scandal. (Magnolia Pictures)

Have you ever wished you could go back to high school, knowing what you know now? Perhaps a do-over of junior year, without the peer pressure, awkwardness, bullying and face plants?

Yeah, me neither.

High school was both a pivotal period and a passing phase: A kind of hell while it lasted, filtered into a selectively benign set of memories through the dulling benefit of time. That is unless high school was your high-water mark, in which case I am so, so sorry.

Jono McLeod’s exceptionally creative and entertaining documentary, My Old School, which premiered at Sundance and opens July 29 at Opera Plaza Cinemas and AMC Metreon 16, revisits a memorable year for a class at a traditional school in a well-off suburb of Glasgow. A tall, gawky newcomer appeared in the doorway of the Bearsden Academy classroom on a particular day in 1993, answering to the name Brandon Lee.

In his native Canada, Brandon said, he toured with his mother, an opera singer. He had come to Glasgow after she was killed in a car accident to live with his grandmother. Bits of his bio emerged here and there, like when his gram called the school to report the death of Brandon’s diplomat father in the U.K., necessitating his early departure for the day.

A man with grey hair and glasses sits at a classroom desk
Alan Cumming in 'My Old School.' (Magnolia Pictures)

An outsider at first, Brandon connected by befriending a black classmate (which persuaded the bully who picked on Stefen to stop), introducing others to cool bands of a previous era like Television and, most improbably, landing the lead role in the class production of South Pacific. He became the star pupil of the class, with aspirations of becoming a doctor.

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At its core, My Old School is a talking-heads documentary comprised of the memories and perceptions of Brandon’s classmates and teachers. But instead of cutting and pasting generic period footage to illustrate the story (like the increasingly tiresome subgenre of Netflix true crime docs), McLeod employs animation, which imparts an irreverent tone to the proceedings. He helpfully conducts the interviews in classrooms, thus casting us (along with his participants) into the past.

McLeod has another ace up his sleeve in the form of Alan Cumming. The Scottish actor was once slated to star in a film adaptation of Brandon Lee’s story, but Lee withdrew his support and the project collapsed. Lee acquiesced to an audio interview for this film—he refused to appear on camera, and the movie raises the left-field possibility that he’s had plastic surgery to create a new identity—so Cumming stands in, playing Lee and lip-syncing his “lines.”

It’s difficult to describe the technique and its effect without it sounding like a gimmick, and one that pulls you out of the movie. Cumming, outfitted in a nondescript tan jacket and wire-framed glasses and seated at a classroom desk, plays Lee with a blend of shyness and pride, ordinariness and fantasy. It’s a subtle, cryptic and touching performance that infuses My Old School with heart as well as poignancy.

McLeod slips the word “hoax” into the scene-setting montage that opens the film, so it’s not a complete surprise when Brandon’s secret comes out. But we may not expect it after just 45 minutes, with an hour still to go.

This curious piece of local news became a national story at the time, with mainstream media as well as the tabloids descending on Bearsden. So My Old School, necessarily, has bigger goals than rehashing a sensational tale familiar to many U.K. viewers.

A boarded-up building beneath a grey sky
The former Bearsden Academy in 2009. A student calling himself Brandon Lee is the subject of 'My Old School.' (David Robertson/Wiki Commons)

One of those aims is conveying how people remember—and experienced—the same events differently. (This hasn’t been news since Rashomon, though it is amusing to hear a pair of Brandon’s peers discuss “the official story” and “the official rumored story.”) More compelling is the range of judgements of Brandon’s former classmates, who express betrayal, bemusement, disgust—and, in Stefen’s case, appreciation for the career he has today thanks to the self-confidence Brandon gave him.

Not coincidentally, Jono McLeod himself was in that Bearsden class. We don’t learn this until the end, but it explains his subjects’ openness to his questions and their comfort level with the camera.

Every British film, one could argue, is about class in ways small and large. My Old School raises the possibility that Lee was driven to dubious lengths to succeed by the actual circumstances of his mother and father. (They could barely afford to move to Bearsden, we come to hear, but they were determined to give their son more opportunities.)

Upward mobility and personal fulfillment are powerful drivers, to be sure. The tragedy of Brandon Lee, such as it is, may pivot more on his specific inability to recognize where dreams end and delusion begins.

‘My Old School’ opens July 29 at Opera Plaza Cinemas and AMC Metreon 16 in San Francisco. It opens Aug. 12 at Smith Rafael Film Center, San Rafael.