‘My Old School’ Review: Outside-the-Box Doc Offers Crash Course in Notorious Scottish Scam

In 1993, six years after Johnny Depp and company were deemed too old to keep up the charade on “21 Jump Street,” Brandon Lee went back to Bearsden Academy. At least he said his name was Brandon Lee. Some people thought that was weird, since another Brandon Lee (son of Bruce, star of “The Crow”) had just died a few months earlier. They also found it strange that this fifth-year transfer student — who claimed to be from Canada, the same country where countless teenage con men swear that their long-distance girlfriends live — looked so much older than everyone else.

If you grew up in Scotland, you probably (think you) know this story. If you’re from the relatively posh Glasgow suburb of Bearsden, the Brandon Lee saga is the stuff of local legend. But if you’re stumbling into “My Old School” unawares, as most of the film’s virtual Sundance audience did, then you have a lot to learn from director Jono McLeod’s stranger-than-fiction doc, starting with the reason the director cast Scottish actor Alan Cumming in the film.

Cumming doesn’t provide your typical documentary reenactments. Those are handled via retro, “Daria”-style animated sequences, performed by professional voice actors (including Clare Grogan and Lulu) and accompanied by a period-appropriate playlist. Meanwhile, Cumming sits in for the actual “Brandon Lee,” who agreed to let McLeod interview him, but not to appear on camera.

McLeod, it turns out, went to Bearsden Academy at the same time as Brandon, and rather than tell the story the way the media has all these years (they nearly always led with the twist, and frequently got the facts wrong), the director frames it from the perspective of those who fell for the charade. Like any good con man documentary, “My Old School” keeps its audience guessing, delighted to be deceived — although there’s a degree to which relying on animation cheats us of the question on everybody’s mind: How could so many have fallen for Brandon’s ruse?

An aspiring med school student, Brandon seemed to know all the answers in class. He could drive. And he drank Chardonnay. Naturally, we want to see what this mystery student looked like via photos or archival footage, but revealing that too early almost certainly would have spoiled the pleasure McLeod takes in misdirecting us. Certainly, enlisting Cumming helps throw people off the trail for a while, although the longer the film stalls, the more it feels like McLeod is being complicit in the scam.

Audiences are best advised to be patient, absorbing the testimonies of the dozen or so classmates who do appear on camera, doling out their memories of that wild year when Brandon fooled them all. As they relive their high school days, no doubt so will you. That’s the most brilliant aspect of McLeod’s project: He’s built a virtual time machine of sorts, one that invites everybody to head back to their old school in their minds. But only Brandon was daring/masochistic enough to do it for real.

Though Bearsden Academy has long since been torn down, McLeod stages his interviews in a space that’s designed to look like their former classroom. His subjects sit stuffed behind old wooden desks they’ve clearly outgrown, usually in pairs, which allows them to play off one another, challenging and correcting the more fuzzily remembered details. (The director originally intended the flashbacks to be handled via live-action, à la “The Imposter,” but the pandemic made that near-impossible. Ergo, animation, which feels fittingly irreverent.)

“My Old School” spends the first hour or so to laying the foundation, out from under which the proverbial rug will later be pulled. McLeod does an effective job setting up a few key scenes in particular — a school production of “South Pacific” that served as a turning point for Brandon, the holiday trip to Tenerife where the truth came out — knowing those stories are unreliable, which is probably more fun for the Bearsden alums than it is for audiences. Come to find, Brandon’s former classmates are finally learning what really happened all those years ago, and it’s a trip watching them try to wrap their heads around all the layers of illusion — even if McLeod ultimately lets “Lee” off too easily. From the look of things, he hasn’t entirely learned his lesson.

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