This has probably happened to everyone: you’re in a social situation and talking to someone you barely know. They start with a long story, and it’s a little interesting, but never so interesting that it distracts you from the question, why are you telling me this?
Well, “My Old School” is the movie documentary equivalent of that situation. Set in Scotland, it tells the story of Brian MacKinnon, who had failed his medical degree years earlier. He knew that under his real identity, he couldn’t go back to medical school. So, at the age of 32, he changed his name to Brandon Lee, re-enrolled in high school and pretended to be a teenager.
What makes this story particularly odd is that “Brandon” enrolled in the exact same high school he graduated from over a decade earlier, and yet none of his old teachers recognized him. For someone who had to maintain a low profile, he allowed himself to become popular even in the school production of “South Pacific.” And he came up with an elaborate history for himself, including a dead opera singer’s mother and Canadian citizenship.
All of this is reasonable, vaguely interesting, but telling the story in the documentary is hindered in a number of ways. It took place over 25 years ago, and while this is the first most of us hear about it, it just doesn’t feel fresh. Vibrant music is piped throughout to make it all seem fresh and new, but a quality of steely clings to the material.
Another problem is that there is very little real footage of Brian/Brandon’s time at school. To illustrate the action, the film relies on rudimentary animation of the “Beavis and Butthead” variant, and it just isn’t fun to watch.
Ultimately, although Brian MacKinnon himself was extensively interviewed for the documentary, he refused to be filmed. Director Jono McLeod comes up with an ingenious solution to this problem. He brings in actor Alan Cumming to synchronize McKinnon’s words.
Cumming is an attractive actor, who was mentioned in the 1990s as someone who could play MacKinnon in a dramatic feature film. Cumming takes his job in “My Old School” seriously and gives a real performance. Yet something is lost by not having the actual MacKinnon on screen.
As it stands, MacKinnon remains unknowable, so what other possible understanding can be gained from looking at his story? Perhaps “My Old School” could have worked as an investigation into the effect his deception had on the community. Only problem: there was no really significant effect.
Or perhaps the story has spoken to greater truths. For example, it may have acted as a ruminant about the inability to recreate the past — and about the desire to go back and make things right. But no, MacKinnon is too cold-blooded to stir up poetic musings, and his story is too specific and narrow to have any wider application.
Ultimately, “My Old School” is a well-made documentary that succeeds in most respects, but begins to crumble at a single question: Who cares?
The story has happened. Fine. It’s not boring. But why are you telling me this?
l“My old school”: Documentary. With Alan Cumming. (Unrated. 104 minutes.) Opens Friday, July 29 at the Opera Plaza Cinema, 601 Van Ness Ave., SF landtheaters.com