The most adorable documentary that Frederick Wiseman never made, Neasa Ní Chianáin’s “In Loco Parentis” is a fly-on-the-wall chronicle of an academic year at Headfort, the only primary-age boarding school in the whole of Ireland. A verdant and enchanted estate in the heart of Kells, it seems like a place that time forgot. The giggly student body is the same age every semester, and the 21st-century pop songs the kids perform during band practice feel like dispatches from a very distant world (it’s as jarring to hear Rihanna at Headfort as it would be to hear her at Hogwarts).
Alas, even the most serene environments can’t exist in a snow globe. For John and Amanda Leyden, the married couple who have been running Headfort for 46 years, the deceptively static school environment has only made them more aware of their own mortality. They’d retire the moment it felt like they were no longer capable of being “in loco parentis” for their students, and that moment is fast approaching.
But not yet. As they make the short drive from their house to Headfort on the first day of class, a camera following their car from high above the emerald green fields, it’s immediately clear that we’re witnessing the full scope of their lives. If not Headfort, where would they go? If not educators, who would they be? “You can’t stay here forever,” John tells one of his students, but the feeling is decidedly mutual.
In some respects, John and Amanda are the platonically cute ideal of an aging Irish couple — it’s easy to imagine them being played to perfection by Jim Broadbent and Fionnula Flanagan in a wistful, understated adaptation. He’s a reedy man, firm but much friendlier and funnier than he likes to let on. You’d never guess that he thinks rock music is every bit as important as reading and arithmetic, and (overly) long stretches of the film are devoted to scenes of John standing over a student as she hammers away on the drums. He might scowl at kids scrawling Bowie’s name on the concrete around the property, but it secretly fills him with life. Amanda is more traditional in her ways, but she’s not the least bit stodgy or severe. “Give them fun!” she exclaims, her core ethos shaking its way onto the screen.
It’s charming to watch John and Amanda do their thing, but “In Loco Parentis” feels incomplete in the bits where they’re not together. Chianáin, who must have spent an ungodly amount of time with her subjects for them to be so comfortable on camera, can be frustratingly scattershot with her attention. By highlighting sweet, indicative, or hilarious moments rather than tracing the teachers’ relationships with any particular students, the film is more attuned to the rhythms of Headfort than it is the people in it.
That approach allows for some brilliant episodes (“Sometimes it’s better to be gay than to be single,” one boy concludes at the end of a lesson), and it serves the idea that John and Amanda find comfort in the cyclical nature of their work. Watching them calm a homesick child, it’s clear that this isn’t their first rodeo. But the footage of kids in and around their classrooms is seldom illuminating, because teachers — even when seen through a vérité lens — appear symbolic when surrounded by young students. These moments, however entertaining, don’t cohere into anything more.
Fortunately, “In Loco Parentis” thrives whenever it regards Headfort as a place suspended between an ancient institution and an overgrown home, one that fosters both the transient children and the adults who have become part of the furniture. It’s during these chapters, when the Leydens are chain-smoking by their bedroom window or sitting in a faculty meeting devoted to the careful analysis of their students’ progress, that Chianáin traces a bittersweet tension between the present and the future. At times, such as the film’s wordless final beat, she finds a finite poetry in the raw nature of education itself.
“In Loco Parentis” premiered in the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.