In a neat turn of events, Alex Lawther’s latest adolescent reject is free of the gruelling angst the young star has spent the best part of his career perfecting. As school beating stick Amberson, he’s actually quite the charmer in his own eccentric way. Quaint charm is the gentle soul of Old Boys, a so so feature debut from two time BAFTA short nominee Toby MacDonald. Though the film ultimately falls flat of its promise, it does so in a genial and occasionally witty fashion.
Themes of toxic masculinity, boyish loyalty and hidden vulnerability pervade the film, which is an unabashedly twee re-working of Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac. The setting is an out-of-time public school in eighties Britain. Whilst every beat of the film’s structure and script might suggest a period at least fifty years earlier – prior even to the era of Tom Brown’s Schooldays – we know this must be the eighties by virtue of the looming presence of late-Cold War sensibilities. The juxtaposition is odd and never quite works but, for what it is, McDonald does well to mine the tradition of boisterous public school education for all its comic worth. Much here is rooted entertainingly around a particularly violent – entirely fictional – game called ‘streamers’, a cross between football, rugby and military combat played in a river, and the unique ineptitude of an all male teenage environment.
Amberson is the school’s relentlessly bullied scholarship student. Smart and cultured, he hides behind his spectacles and day dreams of loosely fitting in with a cohort of jocks. Chief among these ne’er-do-well students is handsome sports hero Winchester (Jonah Hauer-King), a ‘labrador in trousers’ with a lovable smile but not much between the ears. When the arrival of the school’s new French teacher’s firecracker daughter Agnes (Pauline Etienne) turns heads all round, it is a comic twist of fate that sees her catch ‘the Mighty Winch’ reciting learned-by-heart French poetry in class and fall madly in love with him.
We all know that Amberson is a much better match for Agnes – and that Winchester is deficient in the English language, never mind the French – but still he finds himself the unlikely matchmaker and too hopelessly restrained to express his feelings on the matter. Winchester, by contrast, might look the part but is surprisingly inadequate in the field of women and can only boast one not-so-romantic encounter in the Alps. He’s also much less of a twat than one is led to expect. In return for Amberson’s help in wooing Agnes, Winchester insists on a quid pro quo pact and agrees to ‘stop being such a colossal prick’.
Aside from the revelation that is Hauer-King’s terrifically foppish performance, there is precious little novel about Old Boys. It is far from the first film to set the Cyrano premise within a school setting and never comes close to exceeding the story’s inherent – thanks to over a century of reproduction – clichés. There is, for instance, a sense that MacDonald’s competent, yet unspectacular, delivery lacks energy and that the Luke Ponte and Freddy Syborn script from which he works is constantly struggling to find its feet. This is as good as confirmed in the film’s confusingly edited third act but is, nonetheless, a pity.
That said, there are sporadic bursts of wit to be enjoyed here. One ingenious, albeit throwaway, gag sees Amberson interrupt Agnes mid flow to demonstrate that he knows the word ‘library’ in French with a glee familiar to any Brit who has ever halfheartedly studied French. In another scene, Winchester responds to the avant guard montage video Agnes has sent him as ‘intellectual’ introduction with a series of fact cards to inform her that he likes his nickname and has ‘100% natural hair’. Such sparks are like the attempts at goal made by midfielders in a dry game of public school football. It is not that the sporting players are bad in any way – each is evidently skilled at what they do – but there’s too little to get excited about, rendering the final whistle somewhat anticlimactic.