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Storyline (warning: spoilers)
School Life is as charming, intimate and warm-hearted an observational documentary as you’d ever want to see. John and Amanda Leyden are a couple whose respective fifty year teaching careers are drawing to a close. Known and loved for their mantra – Reading! Arithmetic! Rock ‘n’ Roll! – for nearly half a century, these two have shaped thousands of minds. For John, rock music is just another subject alongside Maths, Scripture and Latin, taught in a collaborative and often hilarious fashion. For Amanda the key to connecting with children is a book – any book – and she uses all means to snare the young minds.
But now the unthinkable looms: What will retirement mean? What will keep them young if they leave? John, with his wispy grey hair at the back of his skull having escaped the constraints of a pony tail, has the casual authority of academic confidence, fused with the genuine caring of someone who knows the meaning of in loco parentis. He’s instantly sympathetic, as is his wife, who combines the qualities of an earth mother with those of a favoured aunt.
Shot over a year, this is the kind of fly on the wall doco that is profoundly dependent for its success with audiences on editing. The two central characters are the anchors, but the filmmakers canvass the whole of school life, and take us into the mixed gender classrooms and music rehearsals, private conversations and the rituals of a primary school whose students are boarders from Ireland, Spain, England, France and other countries.
School Life is more than a year in the life of an unusual educational institution located in an enormous 18th century mansion surrounded by lush greenery near the town of Kells, a massive place that was once the heart of a great estate. As directed by Neasa Ní Chianáin and David Rane, School Life also provides an empathetic example of what it takes to enable children to learn and flourish as well as an examination of exceptional teachers and an up-close illustration of just how it is they do what they do so well.