We’ve seen so many screen variations on the “Cyrano de Bergerac” story over the years that “Old Boys” can’t even claim to be the first to spin it as a high school comedy. But Toby MacDonald’s sweet, puppyish debut feature finds at least one twist to the tale that renders it both appealing and, in its own dippy way, lightly plausible: The young nerd creating romantic missives on behalf of the handsome dunce, in pursuit of a winsome French girl more mature than both boys combined, has scarcely more understanding than the other guy of life, love and what women want.
Set in an ultra-posh English boys’ boarding school, where masculinity is at once fragile and boorishly vocal, MacDonald’s film blends heightened, era-fudging nostalgia with a blacker strain of farce and class satire. If the combination doesn’t always fly, the film’s scrappy visual ingenuity and game performances keep it lively: As the film’s pipsqueak Cyrano, the ubiquitous Alex Lawther is its primary selling point, though Jonah Hauer-King, endearingly hilarious as his beefy marionette, is its greatest revelation. Lawther’s recently raised profile via Netflix’s youth-targeted series “The End of the F***ing World” could boost distributor interest in this perky audience-pleaser, though whether its absurd, deliberately anachronistic school setting will net interest more from teens or throwback-inclined adults remains to be seen.
For MacDonald, an accomplished short filmmaker whose 2000 title “Je t’aime John Wayne,” netted him a European Film Award and the first of two BAFTA nods, “Old Boys” is a long-awaited venture into feature filmmaking, adding a lick of commercial polish to the gently cockeyed humor of his bite-size work. The film is slickest at its outset, as an elaborately staged sporting setpiece establishes the lowly schoolroom status of weedy, working-class scholarship student Amberson (Lawther) in a brutal match of “streamers” — a ghastly imaginary contortion of rugby at which dim, ultra-privileged alpha jock Winchester (Hauer-King) naturally excels. Heavier on muddy trampling than logic orstrategy, it’s a lunatic creation that exemplifies how the film satirically distorts English public school quirks and politics.
Freddy Syborn and Luke Ponte’s script is peppered with slang that would have been considered quaint even in the film’s somewhat random 1980s milieu. The point that these rarefied elite campuses exist out of time could have been made in a contemporary setting — though cellphones might have impeded the plot mechanics that make Amberson a goofy go-between after he befriends Agnes (Pauline Etienne), the cosmopolitan-seeming daughter of his short-fused new French teacher (the wonderful Denis Menochet, underused). They may bond as mutual outsiders in these laddish environs, but Amberson is crestfallen to learn that Agnes only has eyes for Winchester. When the latter proves himself a hopelessly inarticulate suitor, Amberson begrudgingly agrees to help put some poetry in his patter, pouring his own feelings into the notes, homemade videos and oddball gifts he ferries between them.
This stretch of indirect wooing is the most delightful in “Old Boys,” hinging on ornately staged gestures of affection that bring a heavy dose of Wes Anderson to the film’s tonal and aesthetic palette. (“Rushmore,” in particular, appears to be a key reference point.) The script, meanwhile, colors some surprising dynamics into its hobbled love triangle, as Agnes turns out not to be less worldly than she appears, Amberson less precocious and Winchester, though accurately described in one of the film’s best lines as “a labrador in trousers,” a bit more tender-hearted.
Hauer-King’s comic turn is inspired, playing the character’s preening poseur quality against his growingly exposed vulnerability, while Lawther, a long way from the more fabulous classroom conflicts of “Freak Show,” offers another sensitive study in awkward, yearning adolescence. If the charming Etienne isn’t quite as convincing as either, that may be an error of both casting and scripting: Given a character who’s evidently out of school but short on life experience, it’s a little hard to tell what age the Belgian actress (herself in her late twenties) is supposed to be playing.
“Old Boys” peels further away from the “Cyrano” template as it jogs cheerfully toward its melancholic but hopeful climax, and while that departure gives the script a little less shape — the last act, in particular, feels somewhat haphazardly arranged — the message of independence and self-possession that emerges from this late left turn is a pleasing one. Nobody quite grows up in the course of “Old Boys,” at least they take charge of their stories: Whether it’s prosaic or poetic, this agreeably gawky film ultimately concludes, your life is best put in your own words.