Sundance 2017: The Non-Narrative Demandingness of “In Loco Parentis”

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Directed by: Neasa Ní Chianáin
Co-directed by: David Rane
Written by: Neasa Ní Chianáin, David Rane, Etienne Essery
Produced by: Angelo Orlando, Montse Portabella, David Rane, Efythymia Zymvragaki
Music by: Eryck Abecassis
Cinematography by: Neasa Ní Chianáin
Editing by: Myriam Strugalla
Official Selection of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival – World Doc

*****

In my profession, it is common to feel like a movie is supposed to be liked more than I’m capable of liking it. You must go through the same thing every day. In fact, Aziz Ansari, in a viral sketch from Saturday Night Live, recently tapped into this: if you don’t adore La La Land, you are a kind of lowly ignoramus – a pariah – in the culture wars. Even worse, though, is to deny a film of its value. A critic who doesn’t like Moonlight is a war criminal and an art-hater; if you haven’t seen Toni Erdmann, don’t bother making a Top 10 of 2016 list. But with respect to those films’ collective accolades, the sentiment of cinema’s “importance” takes hold during film festival premieres more strongly than perhaps any other time of the year. As a result, I tend to feel guilty at the first pang of boredom with a fest movie: “What is wrong with me?”

Knowing that, you can imagine the demanding self-pity and inner scolding during my first screening of In Loco Parentis, a slow-moving documentary set at a boarding school in Kells, Ireland. Composed mostly of cute kids singing off-key pop music and their curmudgeonly but inspiring instructor, this Irish Film Board-sponsored project premiered at Sundance a couple of weeks ago to warm and rapturous reviews (its World Premiere was last year, at IDFA). What’s strange about all this is that a tamer and more derivative attempt at “slice-of-life” filmmaking is hard to imagine. Perhaps my failure to have a profound experience is a matter of context, or maybe I was held back by the social environment in the U.S., where even the slightest bit of pleasantness must be viewed with suspicion (one step forward these days is met with two steps back and excessive Twitter trolling). Regardless, by all accounts I was supposed to have adored In Loco Parentis – so why does watching it feel like time misspent?

Directed by Neasa Ní Chianáin and co-director/co-writer David Rane, the film’s title means “In Place of a Parent,” referring to the veteran teachers who watch over their pupils day-in-and-day-out. Our key viewpoints are through the retiring Leyden couple, John and Amanda, whose marriage has kept them as coworkers at the school for forty years.

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Among their kids, we find all the ancient archetypes: the shy but brilliant outsider; the gregarious pre-pubescent class clown; and the usual range of budding musicians, artists, and fort-builders. But this being modern-day Ireland, new issues are raised on the most adult of topics. Are the children comfortable with homosexuals? Are they familiar with the anti-imperialist teachings of Gandhi? Why no one thought to ask them about the rise of American fascism is anyone’s guess, but I think it could have been fruitful.

In any case, these progressive dialogues push the film’s middle section into overtapped territory, with John alternating between stern control over the children and soft-spoken support for their individualities. From the Hollywood version of this process in Dead Poet’s Society and The Emperor’s Club, to the exemplary naturalism of Laurent Cantet’s The Class, the little moments captured by Rane and Chianáin (who shot the film almost entirely handheld) are mere replications of the ones from filmmaking past. Remove the excitement of formal precision in The Class, or the high-key melodramatic lighting scheme from Freedom Writers, and you wind up with this film’s visual style: obvious, haphazard, and a little lazy.

The goal seems to have been to simply capture what was capturable, a technique made famous by Frederick Wiseman and pushed to its limits by the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab (of Leviathan, Sweetgrass, and Manakamana). These influences are among some of the most assured nonfiction filmmakers in the world, and In Loco Parentis certainly borrows from their compassionate and sensitive tonal approaches. Chianáin never gets too close to the Leydens or to the children, but neither does she avoid engaging them when an unnatural quietus takes over certain scenes. This is not the becalmed, gentle documentary its log-line might suggest; ultimately, there is almost as much music as John Carney’s indie hit Sing Street. In fact, I preferred the sputtering moments of performance here, which lack the kind of polished, precocious confidence as the characters in Carney’s film.

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But despite these charmed scenes, there is such a palpable slackness in In Loco Parentis as a whole that I found myself asking a question I’m revolted by: why make this film? Surely the filmmakers must have sought purpose and pride in a feature project when producing such work can take years of fundraising, post-production, festival submissions, and promotion.

I also find myself wondering if Myriam Strugalla, who also edited Chianáin’s 2014 Locarno selection The Stranger, was satisfied with this almost non-narrative cut. Critics may have misunderstood the film because of its presence in the World Doc category at Sundance – in my own preconceptions from the press material, I was led to expect a movie with pinches of drama. Alas, there is none to speak of here save for the parental concern the Leydens show for a timid student. Now, if the goal was to depict the comings-and-goings of this microcosm with an avant-gardist’s disaffection for linearity, then Strugalla has constructed a daring and successful work. A re-watch might tell me the answer to this question. The problem is I don’t want to have to watch it again.

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