You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘In Loco Parentis’

Irish docmaker Neasa Ní Chianáin's Sundance-tapped film winningly surveys the daily routine of an exclusive, unusual prep school.

Amanda Leyden, John Leyden, Dermot Dix.

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5475022/

Not everyone subscribes to the hoary old maxim that school days are the best of your life, but even for those who do, along comes “In Loco Parentis” to prove that they could have been better. Set in and around the loving, liberally managed prep school of Headfort in idyllic County Kells, Ireland, Neasa Ní Chianáin’s gentle but keen-eyed documentary celebrates contemporary, constructive methods of elementary education, while also taking cozy comfort in the more longstanding aspects of the institution — not least in its selection of veteran teaching couple Amanda and John Leyden as our chief guides through Headfort’s venerable stone-built walls. There’s considerable poignancy in the contrast between this eccentric pair’s mutual sense that their lives are winding down and the vast, still-unshaped futures of their young charges, but Ní Chianáin’s film largely resists sentimentality of the “Greatest Love of All” variety.

Playing in the World Documentary competition at Sundance following a well-received premiere at last year’s IDFA fest, “In Loco Parentis” should prove sufficiently amusing and affecting to net some boutique distribution and VOD exposure. Comparisons may be drawn to Nicolas Philibert’s beloved 2003 schoolhouse study “Être et avoir,” though “Parentis” is likely a little too ungathered in form and focus to break out in the same way. (The 100-minute running time, while hardly taxing, could also use tightening.) The further this Irish production (with Spanish input) travels from home, meanwhile, the more unreservedly charmed audiences may be. Domestically, a proportion of viewers will be inclined to resist its glowing portrait of progressive but undeniably privilege-based private schooling — in which we see top pupils ushered through to such elite English institutions as Eton and Harrow. The politics and practicalities of this model are never addressed in a film dedicated firmly to education’s rewards rather than its hefty price.

Taken on those terms, however, it’s hard not to be moved by the dedication and affection that the Headfort staff — given a bit more individual scrutiny here than the children — put into their work, as the film follows them through the academic year. It’s a rough structure that begins and ends in tears: the homesick weeping of new first-grade boarders at the outset, though by the end, as older pupils scatter off into separate high schools, it’s the farewells that are moist-eyed. It’s a cycle entirely familiar to the Leydens, who have taught and lived on the campus for over 40 years, and who count the school’s cheery, forward-thinking principal, Dermot, among their past students.

Patient, sweet-natured English teacher Amanda, whose eyebrow piercing hints at a rebel spirit beneath her mumsy, heart-patterned knitwear, has returned to teaching after a hiatus and can barely contain her excited adoration of the children in her care. Disheveled Latin expert John has a brusquer manner with the kids, for which he is frequently chided by his wife. Yet his level of kindly commitment emerges in his coaching of the school’s enthusiastically tone-deaf band, whose lively sets run the gamut from Ellie Goulding’s “Burn” to, in a selection ironically betraying their supervisor’s age, The Undertones’ “Teenage Kicks.” In the Leydens’ home, a comfortably messy staff cottage where two huge, spoiled dogs rule the roost, we’re party to the couple’s daily complaints and concerns over their students, though the degree to which they thrive on their work is never in doubt.

Gradually, as Mirjam Strugalla’s ambling, unforced editing separates a handful of children’s arcs from the rest, we gain a greater understanding of what drives their teachers. Subtle evolutions over the course of the year, like the slow social thawing of shy, stern, academically gifted Eliza or the confidence gained by a struggling boy, Ted, via a well-received turn in the school play, are taken as major victories by John and Amanda. Per the title, in the absence of the kids’ parents, we see the teachers’ role become a more attentive and protective one.

Though the gaze of director/d.p. Ní Chianáin’s sensitive, soft-lensed camera seems all-encompassing, having been granted extensive access to the school’s classrooms, staff meetings and even the busy, chatty dormitories, one begins to wonder if we’ve missed any pupils who haven’t blossomed in this near-magical environment, complete with lushly wooded grounds where children can run, jump and climb freely. (Or, in a rare, droll nod to less charmed modern life, play cellphone games when they’d rather be indoors.) Perhaps not, though at a time when social “bubbles” have come in for cultural criticism, “In Loco Parentis” makes a kind of case for isolating innocents in a purely beautiful, purely benevolent environment.

In keeping with this spirit, the filmmaking is delicately executed in every department. Eschewing any visual or graphic gimmicks, Ní Chianáin keeps the look airily naturalistic throughout, lighting and framing Headfort’s rather imposing architecture — which could look darkly austere in a different film — with a consistent emphasis on its breathing room. Eryck Abecassis’s fragile, shimmery score, full of unusual, whistling instrumentation, is an asset throughout, particularly as an antidote to the more raucous playing of the Headfort in-house band.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'In Loco Parentis'

Reviewed online, London, Jan. 7, 2017. (In IDFA —  competing; Sundance Film Festival — World Documentary.) Running time: 100 MIN.

Production: (Documentary — Ireland-Spain) A Soilsiu Films production in association with Raidió Teilifís Éireann in co-production with Corporación de Radiotelevisión Española, Grismedio. Produced by David Rane. Executive producers, Montse Portabella, Keith Potter. Co-producer, Angelo Orlando.

Crew: Directed by Neasa Ní Chianáin. Co-director, David Rane. Camera (color, HD), Ní Chianáin. Editor, Mirjam Strugalla.

With: Amanda Leyden, John Leyden, Dermot Dix.

More Film

  • Patti SmithVariety's 10 Storytellers to Watch

    Patti Smith Talks Biopics, Beats and Losing Her Cool in Front of Bob Dylan

    On Thursday afternoon Variety partnered with IFP for the first “10 Storytellers to Watch” event, and among the novelists, lyricists, podcasters, playwrights, graphic novelists and brand storytellers who were honored was the pioneering singer, poet and author Patti Smith. The legendary artist received the Impact in Storytelling honor not only for her formidable body of [...]

  • The Great Outdoor documentary series about

    Farm to Picture: Documentary Series 'The Great Outdoor' Chronicles a Life Gone to Pot

    Cannabis cultivation in the Emerald Triangle, the area in Northern California that has long been a go-to for growers, has a starring role in a new documentary series called “The Great Outdoor.” Funded by Flow Kana, one of the state’s leading cannabis flower brands, filmed by David Zlutnick, and executive-produced by Flow Kana co-founder Flavia [...]

  • 1982 El Gouna Festival

    Egypt's El Gouna Film Festival Puts Arab Helmers at Center Stage

    The upbeat state of Arab cinema will be on the screen and in the balmy air at Egypt’s El Gouna Film Festival (Sept. 19-27), which is steadily gaining traction in its stated ambition to become a key platform and solid driver for Middle-East producers. “This year was one the best for Arab cinema,” says Intishal [...]

  • Star Skipper Paramount Animation

    Meet Star Skipper, Paramount Animation's Magical New Trademark Logo Character

    Studio logos are powerful signals to audiences.  Multiple generations of moviegoers flipping through channels or scanning streaming titles have frozen at the sight of a desk lamp hopping across the screen, because it means a Pixar movie is about to play. Likewise, when a young boy lounging inside a crescent moon casts his fishing line into [...]

  • Sybil

    Cannes Competition Movie 'Sibyl' Finds North American Home With Music Box (EXCLUSIVE)

    Music Box Films has acquired the U.S. and Canadian rights to Justine Triet’s darkly comic drama “Sibyl,” which competed at Cannes and had its North American premiere at Toronto in the Special Presentation section. Represented in international markets by mk2, the film follows the ambiguous relationship between Sibyl, a jaded psychotherapist (Virginie Efira, “An Impossible [...]

  • Kent Jones Directs 'Diane'

    Kent Jones to Exit New York Film Festival (EXCLUSIVE)

    In a surprise move, New York Film Festival’s director and selection committee chair of seven years Kent Jones will step down following this year’s 57th edition, which runs Sept. 27-Oct. 13. The departure comes as Jones’ feature filmmaking career is taking off. Issues of potential conflicts of interest have arisen as his work has moved [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content