A kind of Cyrano De Bergerac in an all boys boarding school, Old Boys is endearing and eccentric without ever being completely compelling. It’s the debut feature of Toby MacDonald, following his two BAFTA nommed shorts Je t’aime John Wayne and Heavy Metal Drummer, and takes the gentle whimsy of his shorts onto a larger canvas. It doesn’t all work but has enough charm, especially in the form of lead Alex Lawther, to win you over.
The setting is a 1980s UK boarding school fuelled by cricket, rugby and the school’s trademark game “Streamers” – a kind of British Bulldog in a river. In such an unlikely setting, a love triangle develops between daughter of the new French master, Agnes (Pauline Etienne), sports star and handsome thicko Winchester (Jonah Hauer-King), and unpopular scholarship nerd Amberson (Lawther) who is the go-between the two good-looking types, writing Winchester’s heartfelt words and gestures with aplomb.
Lawther turns the stock geek figure into a winning icon.
The result is Rushmore-esque, without the archness. It’s familiar stuff (climbing into bedroom windows, misunderstood letters), slight, and the final act doesn’t quite land but MacDonald mixes up a keen eye for posh school antics and charming escapades — a homespun video designed to woo Agnes has an endearing Michel Gondry quality. Freddy Syborn and Luke Ponte’s script adds some unusual colours into potentially stock characters —Winchester has surprising vulnerabilities, Agnes is less mature than you’d imagine — and is helped by a strong cast. Hauer-King is particularly good as the clueless jock.
But the MVP here is Lawther, who (once again) turns the stock bespectacled geek figure into a winning icon for the lovelorn, adding affecting notes of yearning and angst. If nothing else, Old Boys is a potent showcase for one of the UK’s brightest young acting talents.