Imagine a real-life account of School of Rock set within a grounded, magic-free Hogwarts and featuring a palatable version of Larry David as the central figure. David Rane and Neasa Ní Chianáin, the makers of this heartfelt observational documentary must have immediately knew they were onto something special when they first chanced upon the two engaging figures at the heart of their film. Husband and wife John and Amanda are easy-going and passionate life-long teachers nearing the end of their 45 years of service at Headfort, a primary-age boarding school housed within an 18th century estate in Ireland.
The two feel as ingrained in the school as the ornate stone fixtures and decor which hang overhead. Both previous taught the current headteacher, and their love of the job is still evident nearly half a century later – John’s long-held motto of “Reading. ‘Rithmetic. Rock ‘n’ roll!” continuing to encourage and resonate within the halls and classrooms. The duo are an engaging and extremely likable pair. Amanda is more visible in her enthusiasm and zeal, bounding around the stage as she help her budding thesps rehearse for her annual stage production. She’s the perfect foil for her husband’s often hilariously droll and deadpan perspective, particularly as he guides his initially tuneless students to a ‘triumphant’ end-of-year gig.
The film feels shorn of any artifice, and the camera itself is deployed in a very subjective manner, often hunched between students during study or rehearsal. It’s an appealingly good-natured piece, chock-full of beautifully-observed moments, in both the teachers and pupils lives. It’s easy to forget how difficult boarding must be, especially for the pre-teens here, whose academic performance is put under intense scrutiny (many of whom are revealed to be on their way to Eton). It’s left to the John and Amanda to inject the requisite joy and fun into the children’s lives and their learning. Ignore the rather prosaic, lacklustre title, School Life is an inspirational and moving look at the challenges of educating young minds. It’s the kind of film which does more to promote the positive side of the professional than any teaching recruitment campaign could ever hope of achieving.