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My Old School (Sundance Review): Deception & Survival

My Old School (Sundance Review): Deception & Survival

Starring Alan Cumming as “Scotland’s most notorious impostor,” Jono McLeod’s My Old School is both a documentary on the art of deception and a meaningful investigation on expectations, possibilities, and survival.



When you hear tales about famous impostors, they’re usually about people who got away with doing terrible or illegal things for their own personal gain. In the late 1800s, Canadian-born Cassie Chadwick claimed to be the daughter of a wealthy magnate and lived in luxury for years by borrowing money from banks; in the 1900s, Austrian con-man Victor Lustig sold the Eiffel Tower (twice) to get rich; after posing as anything from a ship’s captain to a member of the Rockefeller family, German scammer Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter is now serving time in prison for kidnapping and murder. But what if the con-man in question pretended to be someone else not out of self-interest or to commit a crime, but to escape the hardships and pressures of a life not lived? Known as “Scotland’s most notorious impostor”, the subject of reporter-turned-documentarist Jono McLeod‘s film is a man who describes himself as having been “brought up to be impersonal, to hold back from people,” and that is exactly the kind of picture we get from My Old School. Not only is McLeod’s documentary a masterclass on the art of deception, but it’s also an insightful investigation on the life of a man who’s been stuck in a limbo of unfulfilled possibilities and unmet expectations for so long that his actions feel more like an attempt at survival than a criminal act.

The subject in question is a 16-year-old prodigy who enrolled in a secondary school in a nice area of Glasgow in 1993, after moving to the UK from Canada, where he had been privately tutored by his deceased mother, who was an opera singer. The boy, who called himself Brandon Lee, surprised teachers by being incredibly bright: not only did he seem to have a promising future in medicine, but he also helped foster a healthy school environment by protecting bullied studients, introducing classmates to “cool” bands, and being friendly with his peers. Needless to say, Brandon had a secret, that secret being that he was actually a grown man posing as a high school student. With testimonies from both Brandon and the many students and teachers who never for a second doubted his made-up persona, My Old School takes us back to the early Nineties and tells us the story of the man who, in his own words, did “the unimaginable – something that is just so out there that no one’s even going to dream that you would think of doing that.”

A title card at the beginning of the movie lets us know that “the man at the heart of this story […] is willing to be heard, but not seen,” and so Jono McLeod‘s documentary takes an unusual approach to storytelling, by having Alan Cumming (The Good Wife, “Cabaret” on the West End and Broadway) lip-sync to Brandon’s words from an audio interview, and by providing visual cues in the form of animated flashback scenes (Scott Morriss, of The Brillant World of Tom Gates) depicting Brandon (voiced by Cumming) and his friends and teachers at school in 1993, as well as present-day interviews with those same friends and teachers recalling events from their past. And, though the nature of the deception in question is pretty much signposted during the film, the documentary is still compelling thanks to its clever analysis of a man who’s desperately looking for purpose and meaning, brilliantly brought to life by Alan Cumming, who gives this unreliable narrator just the right amount of personality and raw emotion.

loud and clear reviews my old school documentary alan cumming
My Old School (Obscured Pictures)

It’s hard to judge this 32 year old “schoolboy” when we learn about his life in the film, and realise that what Brandon really needed was a second chance at figuring out who he was, even though he probably wasn’t aware of it at the time. At the end of the film, McLeod asks Brandon’s closest friend if “Brandon Lee” was even a person at all, and that’s exactly the kind of question My Old School wants us to ask. Where do our dreams come from? Do they really belong to us, or are they the result of all the pressure and expectations that have been placed upon us as we were growing up? What happens when we fail to achieve our dream, or, even worse, we realise that it wasn’t even our own dream to begin with? And what’s left of us after these dreams disappear?

My Old School has some issues with pacing and length, and the story it tells is certainly less shocking than what the film’s premise would suggest, but it’s in its thoughtful analysis of humanity’s hopes and fears that McLeod‘s documentary excels, using its “unimaginable” story to tackle universal struggles and anxieties. Blending archive interviews with animation and featuring a superb performance from Alan Cumming in a project that seems to have been tailored-made for him, My Old School will educate you, inspire you, and make you a little wiser.

See Also


My Old School: Official Trailer (Magnolia Pictures & Magnet Releasing)

My Old School premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 23, 2022. The film will be released in US theaters on July 22, 2022.


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