I never went to boarding school, but if I had, I’d like it to have been at the Headfort School in Kells, County Meath, Ireland, which promises “an education that lasts a lifetime.” The institution, founded in 1949 in a two-hundred-year-old building, is highlighted in the extraordinarily enchanting documentary School Life. Director and cinematographer Neasa Ní Chianáin and director and producer David Rane focus on the daily exploits of husband and wife teachers John and Amanda Leyden, who have been at Headfort for more than forty-five years. The film follows them from their quaint house to their classrooms and special projects: John, tall and thin, with an acerbic wit and scraggly white hair on the back of his head, is putting together the school rock band, while Amanda, short and stout with an infectious enthusiasm for life, is staging Hamlet with a handpicked group of students. Headmaster Dermot Dix, who attended the school himself and had the Leydens as teachers, gives them a wide berth, and they are allowed to be themselves, questioning the existence of a supreme being and supporting same-sex marriage; in fact, everyone at Headfort, from the teachers to the students and the administrators, is encouraged to be themselves, rather than pigeonholed into standard, uniform expectations. Dix even considers it a place where students can “horse around” and “get mucky and muddy”; at one point John, who also teaches math and Latin, is outside in the forest, pushing one of the girls on a makeshift swing. Previously titled In Loco Parentis — “in place of parents” — when it was a hit at Sundance, School Life rarely shows any mothers or fathers, which is extremely refreshing in this age of helicopter parenting. Ní Chianáin (Fairytale of Kathmandu, The Stranger) also avoids talking heads, instead opting for a fly-on-the-wall style that puts us right in the middle of things, without so-called experts explaining to us what is happening and why it’s all so engaging.
John and Amanda can be brutally honest when it comes to their students’ artistic talents — witness John’s interaction with a new girl who had stopped coming to the music room — but they care deeply about the kids, discussing them at home to figure out if they were too hard on someone or whether a specific child needs special attention. They both also know that this is what they were meant to do, and that they are still at the top of their game. “I wouldn’t be wasting their time if I was no good,” Amanda says. Meanwhile, John opines, “What else would you do all day?” As the end of the school year nears and the graduating students start receiving acceptances from their next institution of higher learning, there is a heart-tugging cathartic pain as they contemplate saying farewell to their Headfort friends, and particularly John and Amanda. You’re likely to feel the same way, having gotten to know such unique kids as Eliza, Florrie, Ted, Megan, Charlie, and Olivia while falling under the spell of the Leydens. “Remember me,” Ted shouts in the play, portraying the ghost of Hamlet’s father. After watching School Life, you’ll never forget the extraordinary John and Amanda Leyden and everyone else at Headfort. Is it too late to go back to boarding school?