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The documentary ‘My Old School’ is in a class of its own

Alan Cumming portrays an enigmatic new student who arrived at a Scottish high school in the 1990s — and left quite the impression

Alan Cumming in "My Old School."Magnolia Pictures

“My Old School” is a highly unusual documentary, so unusual that a review needs to begin with a fair amount of explaining — but not too much, since midway through there’s a switcheroo of epic proportions.

The first bit of explanation involves the writer-director, Jono McLeod. McLeod was a student at Bearsden Academy, a secondary school in an affluent neighborhood of Glasgow, in 1993. That’s when a new kid named Brandon Lee arrived on the scene.

The second bit of explanation involves Alan Cumming. Cumming portrays the student as he is today. Lee agreed to be interviewed by McLeod but not filmed (another bit of unusualness). So instead of seeing him, we get Cumming sitting at a school desk, lip-syncing Lee’s audio. He does it so well you’d think he was speaking naturally, except that a title card at the beginning of the movie has informed us otherwise. Cumming also provides Brandon’s voice in the animated segments of the documentary. (We’ll get to those in the fourth bit of explanation.) Cumming’s performance, or presentation, is at once casual and assured, which makes it all the more compelling.

The third bit of explanation involves school desks. “My Old School” includes talking-head interviews with a score of Brandon’s classmates, McLeod among them. They sit at school desks in classrooms as they do their talking. It’s a nice visual touch. The film also has interviews with several Bearsden teachers.


The fourth bit of explanation may be the most important. Much of the film is animated. While unusual (that word again), animation is not unknown in nonfiction film. Last year’s “Flee,” about an Afghan refugee, is wholly animated. It was nominated for a best feature documentary Oscar.

McLeod’s recourse to animation makes sense, since he has limited visual resources. He has some photos from ‘93-’95. The latter date is when the switcheroo took place. If the story sounds at all familiar, that may be because it was a brief sensation in the news, so there’s some TV footage, too, but that’s from after Brandon graduated.


There’s also video of the Bearsden school musical which Brandon appeared in, “South Pacific.” He played Lieutenant Cable. (If he’d been Bloody Mary, that would have been really unusual.) McLeod uses clips to impressive effect at the end of the movie. Otherwise, he has Cumming and the other talking heads. So he uses animation a lot. This can be highly effective. It can also be annoying.

From "My Old School" (that's Brandon in the middle, wearing black-framed glasses).Magnolia Pictures

Right away, the other kids noticed how Brandon stood out. He seemed older. His face was scarred. He spoke with an accent, having grown up in Canada. His late mother, an opera singer, had died in an auto accident. The scars came from injuries Brandon had suffered in the accident. He was very bright, a top student. But when classmates pointed out the coincidence of his having the same name as Bruce Lee’s son, who’d recently died in a shooting accident on a movie set, he said he’d never heard of him. And why did Brandon have two passports? That didn’t come out until later, though.

Brandon was a misfit, but he made friends, at first with fellow outcasts, then much more widely. It also helped that he had a driver’s license and access to a car — not at all common among Scottish teens. Cumming, speaking for present-day Brandon, says, “It was almost like being behind enemy lines without there being an enemy. A stranger in a strange land.”


So that’s the situation. One other non-spoiler fact to mention: Brandon went straight to medical school from Bearsden. While not unheard of, that was quite a special achievement. Within a few months, a very different sort of special-ness would be revealed.

One way to understand Brandon’s story and “My Old School” would be in comparison to “Joe Gould’s Secret.” That’s the classic Joseph Mitchell nonfiction account of a colorful, eccentric man who seems very much to be one way — until Mitchell’s understanding, and the reader’s, gets turned upside down. Stanley Tucci made the book into a movie (2000). He plays Mitchell, and Ian Holm plays Gould. Here, in a sense, McLeod plays himself and Cumming plays Lee.

“I was making it up as I went along” is how Lee describes his time at Bearsden. What he was making up owed as much to class, status, and ambition as it did to identity. Embedded in this lively, amiable, and inventive film is an immense sadness that has everything to do with those defining conditions. It’s not clear that McLeod realizes quite how sad. Since he was a participant, that’s understandable. The viewer does, though, and that understanding helps make “My Old School” indelible as well as so intriguing.



Written and directed by Jono McLeod. Starring Alan Cumming. At Boston Common. 109 minutes. Unrated.


Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.