In Neasa Ní Chianáin’s School Life, we get a look into the anachronistic ways in which a boarding school in the countryside of Ireland manages, or rather, stifles childhood in the name of a lofty education. Here the child is certainly not “polymorphously perverse” in the Freudian sense or representative of a state worth returning to—that is, a state of fear, relentless scolding, and unbearable homesickness. The filmmakers try to paint an angelic portrait of Headfort School, which is set on the idyllic grounds of Kells and where teachers John and Amanda Leyden mix critical scripture studies and Shakespeare and math lessons and students singing Ellie Goulding tunes. But no gesture toward a modern-traditional pedagogical hybrid can hide the fact that the only way for the primary-age children to survive Headfort is to muffle their sobs and deny the rather unfortunate existence of human feelings.
Despite its attempts at hagiography, School Life exposes a society whose way of dealing with childhood is to kill a child’s singularity, making it impossible for the unexpected to emerge from children all while nurturing fantasies of royal living and inspirational experimentation. Although the documentary tries to convince us that a pedagogy based on restriction—Read! Go to bed! Stop shouting!—is redeemable because the teachers are quirky, passionate, and allow girls to perform Rihanna’s “Diamonds” in band practice, a child at Headfort is nothing short of a yet-to-be-civilized open vessel waiting to be filled with the wisdom of adults. In this world, enjoying the texture of bubble wrap feels like a transgression, God is a ghost, and a discussion of same-sex marriage begins with a boy saying that gays are disgusting.
School Life is unfortunately committed to keeping its subjects, especially Headfort’s students, at arm’s length. The camera, then, becomes an alibi to how ill-equipped the adults are for connecting emotionally to the children. Instead of capturing potentially disturbing moments of spontaneity and honesty, the camera chooses superficial brevity, never lingering on a child for more than a respectful glance. The real characters end up being the eccentric teachers, not the pupils, who remain one-dimensional. Except for Eliza, a very smart student who basically doesn’t speak and always stands a few yards back from everybody else. At Headfort, getting a shy girl to speak is believed to depend on a magic wand. The camera seems to agree, refusing to grant Eliza the inquiry she deserves. But her muteness amounts to an intervention in a film that would rather be complicit with the idea of a school as an abattoir for the production of proper adults than to question, or at least pay attention to, the interior lives of the child behind the crisp uniforms.