Film-makers Hal Ashby and Bill Forsythe are whipped with the élans of Wes and Lindsay Anderson for this Brit indie debut from director Toby MacDonald. Old Boys blends public school brat spats with scrappy art projects and unrequited teen love without clotting into trite. The 80s based story sees puny student Amberson (Alex Lawther) fall for local French girl Agnes (Pauline Etienne), the daughter of one of his teachers, only to discover her eyes are set on school sports stud Winchester (Jonah Hauer-King). Amberson reluctantly agrees to help Winchester win Agnes’ heart, in return for having bullies kept off his back, but he comes to learn that she may have feelings for someone else.
After potentially pigeon-holing himself as the go-to-guy for geek chic following stellar performances in The Imitation Game, Ghost Stories and The End of the F**king World; Alex Lawther turns the nerd factor up tenfold as gawky, loves truck Amberson, channelling early Woody Allen-like slapstick and pratfalls into a charming, au fait performance. Screenwriters Luke Ponte and Freddy Syborn spin Cyrano de Bergerac into a British rural setting, but make Rostand’s play their own. Their Caldermount Boarding School for Boys recalls Mick Travis’ lodging in Lindsay Anderson’s If…., while expertly crafted character complexities elevate the dawdling story to a cut above conventional rom-con silage.
Winchester’s crippling inability to communicate with women, despite his surface confidence and alpha status, makes him defective, destructive and vacuous, but intriguing. Other characters leak defects: Agnes’ art/bar setting challenges prompting her suitor to prove himself worthy, is admirable, but strengthened with vanity which reinforces realism. Her frustrations at being father’s housemaid and having to constantly hassle him into writing a new book, helps the viewer empathise with her, combined with a character defining twine of failed relationships; the ends of which are assembled into a montage of men being slapped.
A Pet Sematary VHS spotted on top of a VCR, suggests Old Boys is set some time in the late 1980s. While repelling conventional era aesthetics, which would have turned it into a template nostalgia trip, director MacDonald employs sub-culture products and music from the era to govern a hybrid of styles. Post punk, MTV “rock” and new romanticism bloom from Agnes’ self-indulgent attempts to win Winchester’s attention through a self-made music video/advert for herself, in sequences which recall Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind and The Science of Sleep. These partly shape a prevailing, but distorted style, augmented by other 80s paraphernalia like popstar posters and clunky VHS players.
Even though Old Boys doesn’t quite keep the pace or have a unique enough central concept to consistently compel/win wider audiences, there’s more magic here than most generic mainstream rom-con efforts. MacDonald’s debut captivates through winning performances, affable characters and an apt aether adorned by bucolic, leafy settings. While Old Boys probably won’t set the box office on fire or win any big awards, it’s a quaint and dainty breath of fresh air which should be admired by fans of the films that inspired it.
Old Boys is released on the 22nd February 2019.
Words by Daniel Goodwin @privateutopias.
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