Given a new title for its North American release, School Life, originally titled In Loco Parentis, is a charming school year romp in the Irish countryside. With its primary focus on a married couple who are nearing the end of their 40-plus years of teaching at the school, director/cinematographer Neasa Ní Chianáin captures the essence of what good education is all about.
The Headfort School, located in Ireland’s County Meath, is a primary grade boarding school housed in an 18th-century mansion that, while lacking towers, turrets, and battlements, would not seem out of place as part of Hogwarts. Its students, both boys and girls, range in age from seven to 13, and many will go on to be accepted into elite secondary schools. But these are not regimented classrooms with an emphasis on test scores. Instead, the educational style seems to be one of academic exploration and creative expression, with a well-rounded curriculum that includes sports, art, music, and theater.
Amanda and John Leyden live a short distance away in a house provided by the school. The film opens in their home, surrounded by their unruly dogs, as they discuss, with considerable trepidation, a future that doesn’t include teaching. Amanda is an extremely empathetic and supportive English teacher with a passion for both literature and her students. John, who bears a striking resemblance to the zany inventor in the “Back to the Future” movies, exhibits a curmudgeonly nature that belies his depth of caring. He teaches math and Latin and heads up a studio where kids come regularly to take part in what can best be described as a 1960s-style happening, jamming on rock instruments and painting wall murals.
Amanda and John frequently discuss between themselves the challenges they face with certain students. Bright and talented Eliza keeps social interaction to a concerning minimum. The outgoing Ted is held back by his dyslexia. Late arrival Florrie lacks the self-confidence to share her considerable talents with her classmates. Independence, self-confidence, and sociability seem to be the teachers’ chief goals for each student.
Ní Chianáin manipulates the visual impact of what could be seen as a spooky old school with magical, natural images of the surrounding grounds: gnarled, low-limbed trees are perfect for climbing; fog shrouded mornings softly blanket the hillside. A nighttime snowfall is a cause for excitement, despite school being open the next day, and a pathway buried in mounds of pink blossoms marks a bountiful spring. All these scenes lend to the impression of an idyllic, cloistered environment where kids can be kids.
There are no underlying messages or deeper meanings behind the documentation of a school year at Headfort. If anything, it is portrayed as too idyllic. Even John and Amanda’s poignant concerns for a future without the school lend themselves to the picture of educational perfection. However, it is a feel-good film that captures the best aspects of childhood and the joy and satisfaction that can be attained by those who value and support it. It is for anyone who has ever been a teacher or a student. All will come away with smiles on their faces.