Neasa Ní Chianáin's hundred-minute documentary School Life, which encompasses a year of emotional and scholastic activity at the pretty Headfort School in Ireland, comes bookended with bittersweet tears. In the beginning, it's the nervous weeping of children being separated from parents; in the end, it's the sobbing of classmates parting ways after months of fitful bonding. In between, Ní Chianáin recruits as tour guides teachers John and Amanda Leyden, who met at Headfort in the '70s and, since marrying in '72, have continued to work at the institution and share a life together on the grounds nearby. The couple's warm domestic regimen gets quickly sketched at the film's start: There are dogs panting beneath well-worn tables; clouds of steam rising from cups of coffee or tea; and sofas into which John sinks as he puffs on cigarettes. (Amanda also smokes, and there are a few lovely interludes in which the two -- shot from behind by Ní Chianáin, doing double duty as cinematographer -- share a smoke break near an upstairs window.)
This character groundwork proves crucial later on, as School Life, on the whole, treats its student subjects with less ease and consistency; how the viewer reacts to a given pupil is often cued by the editing patterns (by Mirjam Strugalla), which tend to drop in on the youngsters at junctures of cute vulnerability (as when John, leading band class, fields a barrage of tone-deaf auditions). But the central couple's unforced benevolence is hard to resist; the bespectacled John, in particular, exhibits remarkable comfort in front of the camera, his frizzy white hair and knowing reaction shots lending him a kind of quizzical charisma throughout.
Neasa Ní Chianáin, David RaneEtienne EsseryMagnolia Pictures