Observing a year in the life of the pupils at a stunning private primary school, the film focuses on the efforts of two stalwart educators. Contemplating retirement, but still clearly invested in their profession, John and Amanda Leyden are alternately tough-love and whimsical, resulting in unique and deeply affecting relationships with the young people they teach.
Taking heed from the gentle rhythms of Nicolas Philibert’s Être et avoir, School Life applies an unobtrusive eye to the daily goings-on of a top-end Irish primary school. Very little contextual information is provided at the outset (or, indeed, throughout), with co-directors David Rane and Neasa Ní Chianáin instead choosing to drop us in among the action and allow us to piece together the bigger picture on our own. It doesn’t take long to work out that this is an elite private school, one entrenched in tradition and all-but-guaranteeing entry to world-class secondary schools. The general hierarchical structures and teacher-pupil relationships are also quick to become apparent, painting a vivid picture of an institution endearingly unstuck from time. It’s a bustling environment, full of character, and an absolute delight to become immersed in.
School Life’s closest similarity to Philibert’s 2002 documentary, though, is in how it steadily, unassumingly, completely worms its way right into your heart. Rane and Chianáin offer no comment on the action, refusing to cast eccentric old-school educators John and Amanda Leyden as either infallible heroes or crusty relics of a bygone era. Instead, they are simply allowed to be, and their methods speak for themselves.
There are no miraculous, show-stopping transformations here – the shy girl, for instance, doesn’t emerge from her cocoon as a vivacious butterfly. But what is here is infinitely more disarming, building power through the smallest of gestures that hint at a cause-and-effect without ever hammering the point home. The aforementioned introvert ultimately achieves success through academic attainment and well-earned camaraderie with her bunkmates, the latter of which is met with wry approval from John. It’s an arc bursting with nuance and defined by understatement, and its unfussy culmination is no less affecting for its lack of sentiment.
It’s this quality that ultimately makes School Life such a treasure, as well as a paean to a form of education that feels perpetually out of reach in the mainstream. The focus of the teaching here isn’t passing exams or hitting arbitrary targets – although the children will undoubtedly go on to do both – but in less tangible qualities like forging connections, in pursuing a greater understanding, in making a commitment to building character. As a documentary, it doesn’t reinvent the wheel. But as a symbol of what school life could be – indeed, what it should be – it’s a testament to humanity.