By James Turnbull, Film & TV Online Editor
The feature-length directorial debut from BAFTA nominated Toby MacDonald is a whimsical and rather wise twist on the classic tale of Cyrano de Bergerac.
We spend a lot of time pretending to be someone we’re not. If we’re not padding our CVs with barely accurate summaries of the Herculean effort we put in at our previous jobs, we’re sharing carefully constructed dioramas of the lives we wish we were living on social media. But is there some value in finding yourself? Owning who you are?
That’s the question at the heart of Old Boys, which transplants the classic romance-by-proxy escapades of Cyrano de Bergerac into the modern day – or thereabouts. Amberson (Alex Lawther), a gawky teenage outcast fending for himself at the ultra-elitist all-boys school Caldermount, falls head over heels for Agnes (Pauline Etienne), whose father (Denis Ménochet, aka the farmer grilled by Hans Landa at the beginning of Inglourious Basterds (2009)) is the school’s new French teacher and a dysfunctional, perpetually unpublished novelist.
Trailer courtesy of Verve Pictures
There’s just one problem: the real object of her affection is Winchester (Jonah Hauer-King) – a likeable but vacuous jock and the princely cherry sitting on, and adored by, Caldermount’s upper crust. As Agnes challenges her would-be suitor to appeal to the artistic facets of her soul, Amberson and Winchester form an uneasy partnership to win her heart - even if neither of them really knows what they’re doing.
To interrogate the ideas of constructed identity that dominate the story, Old Boys creates a truly memorable setting; Caldermount is a brilliantly hideous concoction of public school stereotypes that leans in hard enough for the audience to go along with it. The seniors jeer and mock the scholarship boys for their fathers’ jobs, Amberson himself being one of them; the school’s motto, ‘Act Manfully’, is dripping with the same misplaced pride as a Tory minister employing a wide-legged ‘power stance’; and its trademark sport, ‘Streamers’, itself basically an unpleasant river-based rugby knock-off, is decided by a move literally known as a ‘boast’.
Photo courtesy of Verve Pictures
Scenes set in Caldermount, however, have a rather washed out, gentle palette, bringing to mind someone’s old, well-worn photographs of times gone by. Old Boys depicts its aggressively unwelcoming setting almost nostalgically, while having its characters and traditions alienate poor Amberson, caught in a vicious spider’s web of prejudices and assumptions.
This constant contradiction endears the audience to Lawther’s character nicely, and allows us to understand that environments like these, lampooned as they are in Old Boys, would undoubtedly provoke nostalgic feelings – but, crucially, only for some people.
Lawther himself does an outstanding job as Amberson, the film’s dubiously qualified Lothario-for-hire. Fidgeting, squirming and never quite at ease, he acts like he’s already having to sit through a slow-motion action replay of himself making a fool of himself, or having to listen to a recording of how his own voice really sounds to other people. It’s a masterclass in awkwardness, but nuanced all the same.
Hauer-King also excels as Winchester, another corner of Old Boys’ lopsided love triangle. In his role as a sort of fuckboy who would be king, he delivers some of the film’s funniest lines while delicately revealing the vulnerabilities behind the mask he wears as the school’s foremost jock.
Photo courtesy of Verve Pictures
Old Boys, for all its charm and humour – and there’s plenty of the latter – is let down slightly by a top-heavy story structure and finds itself treading water for most of its final act. The ending’s message of self-acceptance and authentically experiencing life as your true self is a profound one, and MacDonald’s brave directorial choices in the final ten minutes are thought-provoking. And yet, one wonders whether the directionless journey that preceded it dampens its impact.
But ultimately, Old Boys didn’t need to change the world. Indeed, Old Boys is a triumph for showing us why we should be courageous enough to find our place in the world, and make sense of the sort of person we want to be within it.
Old Boys has a special preview screening and Q&A with Toby MacDonald and Alex Lawther at Watershed on Wednesday February 20. Tickets are still available here.
Old Boys is then showing generally at Watershed from February 22.
Featured Image Credit: Photo courtesy of Verve Pictures
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