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‘My Old School’ Review: A One-of-a-Kind Alan Cumming Performance Undone by Shrug-Worthy Hoax

Sundance: Alan Cumming lip-syncs the testimony of "Brandon Lee," a supposed Scottish teen prodigy whose story is recreated in this familiar-feeling documentary.

Alan Cumming appears in My Old School by Jono McLeod, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Tommy Ga-Ken Wan.All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

“My Old School”

Sundance Film Festival

The story of “Brandon Lee,” a 16-year-old prodigy who infiltrated a Glasgow academy in the 1990s and beguiled his classmates with his preternatural smarts and charm, is well-traded in Scotland but little-known in the States. A simple Google search pulls up everything you need to know about this man, whose shrug-inducing grand hoax is recreated in Jono McLeod’s hybrid animated-reenactment documentary. So it’s curious why reviewers are being asked not to spill the film’s big “secrets.” Suffice it to say, this is “Strangers with Candy”-esque slice of Scottish lore about a “high schooler” who, well, definitely shouldn’t be in a high school, amounts to very little despite a big setup, eliciting a sort of “Burn After Reading” sense of “well, what did we learn?” feeling at the end of it all.

The film is based on the true story of Brandon Lee, a seemingly 16-year-old boy genius who enrolled himself at Bearsden Academy in a suburb just outside of Glasgow, Scotland, claiming to have been privately tutored in Canada while traveling with his opera singer mother, who supposedly died (quite operatically) in a fire. Now, he lives with his “grandma.” The film’s most creative feint (in a film of many stylistic gimmicks, including animation that looks heavily inspired by MTV’s ’90s cult fave “Daria,” right down to the bone structure of the film’s high school characters) is handled by actor Alan Cumming. The Scottish actor and New York club owner, who was long ago set to star and direct in a fiction feature adaptation of Lee’s story, entirely lip-syncs testimonies from the real “Brandon Lee,” who didn’t want to show his face for this film. (The reasons why won’t entirely be spoiled here, but viewers can do the math based on who Brandon was 25 years ago and what he might look like now, a quarter century later.)

It’s a marvelous and completely immersed turn as Cumming embodies, note for note, Lee’s verbal tics and gestures, and if you didn’t know this was a lip-synced performance (or weren’t familiar with Cumming’s own voice), the gimmick would probably go over your head. This one-of-a-kind performance recalls the recent stage work of Deirdre O’Connell in Broadway’s “Dana H.,” in which the actress reenacts actual audio recordings of the harrowing story of a psychiatric hospital chaplain who is kidnapped and taken on a ride to hell and back by one of her neo-Nazi charges. These full-bodied turns herald a new kind of acting that you can easily imagine serving as the vessel for more true-crime stories to come.

Sundance Film Festival

Now back to the “true crime” at the center of “My Old School,” which isn’t a crime at all but instead a sordid (if earnestly told) tale of identity theft and imposter-dom as the brilliant Brandon, who dreams of becoming a medical doctor, wows and woos his new peers at Glasgow with a range of knowledge and cultural smarts that no ordinary teenager should possess. His cultural cache includes (suspiciously) introducing his classmates to “retro” bands like Suicide and Joy Division, and his worldliness somehow manages to attract more than a few of his fellow female students. As flashbacks and recollections of Brandon’s time at the Academy are wrought in hand-drawn animation, it’s otherwise hard to understand how exactly Brandon duped his classmates — though archival video of the gawky, gentle-giant Brandon singing “Bali Hai” in a school production of “South Pacific” gives the only actual, IRL glimpse of the real person. And it’s then you might understand, OK, something is wrong with this picture.

It’s even harder to talk about this movie in terms that avoid spoilers, which speaks loudly to how the film’s central premise ultimately winds up inert. Once the jig is finally up and the “real” Brandon is revealed (and we have our suspicions all along as to who he really is), you’re left feeling like, “That’s it?” The pop-colored animations make for light entertainment, but the real gravity of Brandon’s masterful scheme isn’t fully explored by the movie’s conclusion, which wraps up in a cloyingly earnest fashion as the film’s subjects (including his now-grown classmates) seem to revere this dude as some kind of folk hero rather than the creep he really is. This story needed a more biting treatment, and the social context to back up why it was worth retelling at all.

But perhaps it’s saying something more about this viewer, or those of us who fiend for true-crime stories on the small screen and in podcasts, that “My Old School” ends up feeling rather quaint. It lacks the cynicism and hard edges of similar tales of systematic and psychological manipulation like “Dirty John,” “Lula Rich,” “American Vandal,” or even the upcoming Anna Delvey series on Netflix, “Inventing Anna.” “My Old School” seems to believe its surprises are more revelatory than they actually are, and for the sake of avoiding spoiling the whole thing, it’s hard to sum up what the filmmakers were so fascinated by in the first place.

Grade: C

“My Old School” world premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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