Old Boys by Toby MacDonald, starring Alex Lauther is a witty, quirky, coming-of-age story that’s a cross between Cyrano de Bergerac and The Go-Between, with maybe a hint of The History Boys.
Leaving Schoolby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Old Boys is set in the near past before mobile phones – a watershed for all reminiscent screenplays – and the period feels authentic, as if the director and screenwriters (Luke Ponte and Freddy Syborn) lived it.
Alex Lauther is endearing as Amberson, the only scholarship boy in an authoritarian, sport-oriented minor public school in beautiful countryside. The school’s unique game is Streamers, a brutal brawl like rugby fought in freezing water to gain control of a bizarre square leather ball. Being bad at games, slightly dyspraxic, asthmatic and intelligent set Amberson apart from his peers. He’s a despised outsider and is miserably bullied by the bigger boys – all the while lying to his father about the wonderful time he’s having.
The school’s alpha male is Winchester (Jonah Hauer-King), the good-looking, popular – but irredeemably thick – captain of the school team. Misunderstanding that he is a sensitive poet causes the new French master’s artistic daughter Agnes (Pauline Etienne), an aspiring set designer, to fall in love with him, But, without a creative bone in his body, he doesn’t know how to cope with her arty attentions.
Amberson, who’s in love with her himself but is too young to be taken seriously, steps in to help Winchester with his correspondence with Agnes in return for his protection from the other bullying boys. He exchanges some charming gifts that win Agnes’s heart for Winchester – the wrong boy – and then it all gets out of control.
The film’s gentle satire on the snobbery of the public school system, with its ridiculous rituals and unthinking, militaristic education turns out to be the background to a charming rom-com. Lauther is excellent as the brilliant schoolboy who is not as mature as he thinks he is. Hauer-King – a “labrador in trousers” – is excellent too as he shows the inexperienced boy beneath the self-centred bombast and unsuspected decency as his deal with Amberson develops into a friendship.
As Agnes’s father, Denis Ménochet is a comic, pugnacious narcissist, teaching his own (unsuitable) novel in the classroom, and outsmarted by his daughter, who is more mature than he is. The other masters are as you would expect to find in a public-school satire. There’s good use of music and Amberson’s home-made videos, and humorous dialogue and action to quietly enjoy. Director Toby MacDonald demonstrates an appealingly original world view in his first feature and I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.
Old Boys is released on 22 February 2019 in the UK.