My Old School | FilmInk
In the mid-1990s, a case of identity fraud shook Scotland. Not because the affected person was stealing people’s identities and making money, but because the person created a new identity to return to high school (the high school he originally attended) as a man in his early thirties, pretending to be 16 years old .
Jono McLeod, the director of the partially animated documentary My Old School, was actually at the school in question at the time of the incident. The school was the relatively posh Bearsden Academy (well, posh by the standards of nearby schools) and the student who lived a bizarre double life was Brandon Lee (portrayed here by Alan Cumming, lip-synching his voice).
The documentary begins with a statement; “The subject of this film doesn’t want to show his face. But you’ll hear his voice.” To that end, Alan Cumming, who was originally set to appear in a biopic about Brandon Lee in the ’90s, takes on the roles of Brandon, the ‘real’ character, and also Brandon, the animated character .
In 1993, Brandon Lee enrolled at Bearsden Academy. He was immediately spotted by fellow students because he looked a bit aloof. Some of them thought he was a substitute teacher when he first came into the class. Gradually, despite their initial reservations, the students were won over to Brandon. He was generous to other students, especially the bullied Stefen Addo. He’s made friends, though Lee (whose real name is Brian MacKinnon) has stated that he sees other students as just ciphers.
The documentary is both a character study for the clearly deranged MacKinnon and an exploration of how memory works. McLeod interviews the now adult students who were teenagers by the time Brandon Lee was their classmate. Every memory is slightly different and often contradictory. It’s not until the film goes back and actually plays footage of MacKinnon made during his appearance as the lead in the school musical, that the students at Bearsden Academy don’t realize how much they have misremembered or been conditioned to by MacKinnon’s later appearances on talk shows, not themselves to remember he was caught in his bizarre scam.
Even the documentation fails to explain certain aspects of what happened. Born into poverty, MacKinnon moved with his mother to the more affluent Glasgow suburb of Bearsden as a child. His family was working class – his father was a lollipop man. They lived in social housing. But sometimes Brandon Lee had the means to just hop on a plane and leave Scotland.
MacKinnon originally went to Bearsden Academy in the mid-1970s. He did well in school and became a MD at Glasgow University in 1980. Something happened and he failed his exams (MacKinnon is willfully opaque about this, accusing the university of lying about his grades and transcripts). In the end, he returned to his parents, worked a minimum-wage cleaning job, and plotted how he would eventually return to university to become a doctor. His cunning got him into Dundee University, but he ended up back home (we don’t know why). He never graduated.
The trick is so complicated and intriguing that it would be unfair to spoil it. Needless to say, it wasn’t the plan of a balanced mind (MacKinnon believes it can intrigue people). How did he get away with it for so long? Possibly a mixture of increasingly complex lies, possibly the school didn’t want to scrutinize a seemingly talented student too closely, possibly because his classmates were sixteen and just went with the flow.
As interesting as the documentary and subject matter is, McLeod’s insistence on letting us know how the class ended up in life is redundant and lengthy. People might care a little about Stefen, but other than that the group isn’t particularly interesting. The Daria influenced animation to tell the story is solid and clever.
Stefen eventually asks, “What is a person?” It’s a relevant question when dealing with someone like Brandon Lee. Brian MacKinnon still lives in Bearsden and can be seen wandering the streets and using the local libraries. Brian MacKinnon had a single obsessive goal and ruined two versions of his life in the process.
For anyone who wishes they could go back in time and fix mistakes they made when they were young, My Old School serves as a warning that you can never go back, especially if you take yourself along. Brandon Lee/Brian MacKinnon is a man who will forever run in one spot because he couldn’t see past a single goal. McLeod’s documentary brings this fact to light, but it never fully examines MacKinnon’s state of mind. It is up to the audience to guess at his various possible personality disorders.
My Old School is certainly interesting and Cumming does a wonderful job, but you’ll still end up wondering about too many aspects. McLeod is just as confused as everyone else, and even when he feigns openness, MacKinnon still keeps his secrets.