There is little quite as decisive as education. And state-side, there is certainly a weariness related to boarding schools and their outdated traditions, antiquated ideologies, and general eliteness that, at the moment, has reached a near-pariah state (at least outside of the North East). This makes it plausible that American audiences might sit down to the new Irish documentary “In Loco Parentis” expecting a validation of some preconceived notions. But, as it turns out, “In Loco Parentis” adds a vital perspective on a particular form of education, highlighting most notably that with the right educators and the right environment, it can — and should be — a joyous, mind-opening experience.
Captured with unprecedented amounts of access to the inner workings of the venerable Headfort School in Kells, Ireland, Neasa Ní Chianáin’s film depicts a year in the lives of two eccentric teachers and their students. Amanda and John Leyden met and married at the school in 1972 and have become as much a part of the traditions as the romantic buildings themselves, and the film picks up with them as they prepare for another year and another bunch of incoming 7-year-olds. And, at first, “In Loco Parentis” falls prey to the fallacy of imitative form, as the chaotic early days of the term overwhelm the narrative.
This lack of direction does little to offer a hook to latch onto for most of the first act. In lieu of introducing characters or letting any particular students make an impression, the film whirs in and out of classrooms and dorm rooms and the athletic fields that surround the school, capturing fractions of scenes and jumbled bits of conversation. It’s not so much a disorienting disorder, so much as one that makes it hard to connect with anyone or anything. Which is unfortunate, because when the film does eventually begin to coalesce, what follows is a moving, heartwarming look at youth, thoughtful discourse, and the emotional and intellectual power of artistic endeavors.
Where “In Loco Parentis” — which, translated from Latin, means “in place of a parent” — eventually finds its footing is in art. Outside of the formal classes he teaches, John runs a salon of sorts situated in a dingy cellar packed with band equipment and anomalous paintings. At the start of each term, students, if they so desire, can audition to be part of a rock band. Others paint over the countless murals. Despite some aloof criticisms, John’s only real rule is that students show up and participate. Similarly, Amanda works with the students to put on a play. Each endeavor offers some students a chance to show off their skills, and others, like the dyslexic Ted and the exceedingly shy Eliza, a chance to find some confidence.
And this is where a large chunk of the film’s heart hides. These students, as the film eventually hones in on them and their delightful quirks — their bashful grins and bursts of assuredness — begin to grow into themselves on the screen. They slowly emerge from their shells, find friends, form opinions, and generally delight in being young. And it’s hard not to enjoy being a part of their journey. And that’s where the other chunk of the movie lives: in watching John and Amanda usher another batch of young students into the world. After having been with Headfort for 45 years, it’s a marvel to see the care and compassion they can still imbue upon these children. Or, to put it another way: how they have refrained for so long from becoming jaded.
The magic of “In Loco Parentis,” then, is that it can so thoroughly immerse us into this experience and allow us to still see it from both angles: the wide-eyed awe of youth, and the soulful weariness of those who are charged to continually shepherd in the next generation. And, as such, it’s a film about the value of education, not the rigorous, demanding sort that boarding schools typically connote, but a loose, playful version that leaves room for children to be children, for them to indulge in their interests, expand their horizons, and grow into the strange, idiosyncratic people they will become.
Really, none of “In Loco Parentis” is particularly new or exciting, save for maybe the unprecedented amount of access afforded by Headfort to Ní Chianáin. But it certainly succeeds in being a joyous, humane look at the role that school, education, and, most importantly, teachers have in the lives of such malleable minds. And while the beginning may feel unrooted and chaotic, by the end, the journey to understanding has clearly been mapped, and while nowhere close to being completed, it is certainly underway. [A-]