In the fall of 1993, a new student arrived at Bearsden Academy in Scotland. Brandon Lee was an awkward, gangly kid who looked a little older than your average teen. Despite his odd look and initial standoffishness, Lee made an impression at the suburban Glasgow school. He starred in the school production of South Pacific, hosted house parties, and went on holidays with schoolmates. The most lasting impact he made, however, came in the form of a national scandal. Lee wasn’t who he said he was, and the truth of his identity was both bizarre and a little pathetic.
Jono McLeod’s documentary My Old School recounts Bearsden staff and students’ memories of Lee, and gets Lee’s perspective on the story from the man himself. In a mysterious move that’s in keeping with the subject’s odd duck persona, Lee never appears on camera by his own request. Instead, audio of McLeod’s interview with him is lip-synched by Alan Cumming, who at one point was attached to star in a dramatic version of Lee’s life story.
The Brandon Lee scandal is easily Googled, and not difficult to guess, but I’ll avoid spoilers. Lee’s real identity isn’t the only surprise My Old School has up its sleeve, though it’s arguable the film might be more compelling if it took a more forthright approach to the subject and the storytellers, rather than keep its cards close to the chest. As such, McLeod’s documentary is an enjoyable if oddly jocular take on a strange incident in the lives of his interviewees.
McLeod brings the documentary’s setting and surrounding characters to vibrant life, switching between interviews with now-grown students of Bearsden Academy and dramatized flashbacks done in Daria-style animation. The Bearsden alumni still have fond memories of their time at the school, and tell stories about their interactions with Lee, most of which are funny, and some of which are surprisingly profound.
Most of the former students’ feelings about the situation are lightly humorous, though occasionally they hint at something darker—a reminder that this story, odd and quirky as it may be, has a creepy side. One student’s memory of acting in South Pacific with Lee involved a stage kiss between their characters; her memory is that it was brief and awkward. A video of the production says differently, and it’s an uncomfortable discrepancy. Rather than interrogate that feeling, McLeod just lets it hang there, like a quick eyebrow-raising “yikes!” before moving on.
The lip-synched portions of My Old School, with Cumming mouthing Lee’s words, are intriguingly jarring, adding aesthetic questions about the nature of performance and personality onto a story that carries those themes in a different sense. Again, however, McLeod seems drawn to the less interesting aspects of that performance. Rather than asking probing questions of Lee, he gives us Cumming’s face from multiple angles so we can see how seamless his facial movements are with the audio. McLeod is more interested in the cleverness of the process than what the imposed restriction says about the person who’s being interviewed.
Ultimately, My Old School is less about the Brandon Lee scandal than the people who experienced it. McLeod has clear affection for the former Bearsden classmates, but while the nostalgia trip and schoolmate camaraderie are endearing, they take away from a far more interesting character study. The resulting film is certainly likable, though like a class clown in an AP English class, it doesn’t feel like it’s living up to its full potential.
“My Old School” is out Friday in limited release.