By: Kelly FitzGerald
Neasa Ni Chianain’s film, In loco parentis, (co-directed by David Rane) is a lighthearted documentary taking place at the only primary-age boarding school (Headfort) in Kells, Ireland. Also a competitor in the 2017 World Documentary section at Sundance (see Plastic China), In loco parentis pays tribute to the time-honored pedagogical traditions of John and Amanda Leyden, who are transitioning into retirement. Impulsively chain-smoking as they quietly ponder what their absence could mean for the school and its old-fashion values—namely “Reading. Rithemtic. Rock ‘n’ roll!”—John and Amanda represent the kind of teaching that is nearing extinction.
The opening scene finds the old couple eating breakfast in their quaint cottage. Sprawled out on the kitchen table next to Amanda’s cereal bowl is one of their massive dogs, a sight she is unfazed by. Radiating a happy-go-lucky sort of quirkiness, the couple gets in their car to make the short commute to Headfort, the property of which includes their home. Beautiful aerial shots of the lush, sweeping green landscape forge the transition between the two locations, establishing an atmosphere that is almost fairytale-ish. Slightly offbeat in terms of documentary style, Ni Chianain makes an effort to position the film more classically (though still primarily observational), aesthetically blurring boundaries between fiction and non-fiction conventions.
Apart from the vivid colors and beautiful cinematography, the character arcs that emerge over the one year filming period amplify the seemingly fictitious atmosphere. As expected in an educational setting, the frames of the first and last day of school bookend an overall clarity of the students’ progress. The narrative does drag at times, however, especially in scenes where the audience is asked to endure recurring band rehearsals which include tone-deaf ten-year-olds singing covers to Ellie Goulding’s “Burn” and John Newman’s “Love Me Again.”
One particular ‘character’ that stands out is Eliza, an exceptionally intelligent but painfully shy young lady. While her peers are building forts, playing soccer, and gossiping after lights-out, she sits alone, deliberately distancing herself. One can’t help but question whether the presence of the camera had something to do with her shyness, though her disposition certainly made for a strong focal point—which Ni Chianain and Rane keenly latched onto.
“A celebration of the school experience,” the students at Headfort are exposed to a truly unique tradition of both work and play (The Film Stage). Translated as “in the place of a parent,” the title In loco parentis rightfully applauds the roles of John and Amanda for acting as parents and teachers, elegantly balancing the demands of both. Perfection is the least of their worries, placing trial and error on a pedestal. Almost comical, John looks on with a discerning eye as students attempt to use power tools, paint interior walls, and learn new instruments—offering minimal guidance, only to prevent disaster. If this film speaks to the future of education in the slightest, it screams that real learning happens when we let kids simply be kids.
To watch the official trailer and learn more about this film, click here.