The stories we tell haven’t changed so much over the centuries. Old Boys makes this clear, even if the effect isn’t quite intentional. Old Boys, the feature debut of director Toby MacDonald who earned two Bafta nominations for his short films, sells itself as a new spin on Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac, here transferred to the corridors of a 1980s private school for boys.
In the traditional story, Cyrano – an accomplish, educate gentleman – falls in love with a woman. But fears he’ll be reject for his abnormally large snout. And so, he covertly woos her by agreeing to help her handsome, airheaded suitor and pen his love letters. In Old Boys, our Cyrano, Alex Lawther’s Amberson, isn’t troubled by his nose. But his monstrous lack of social clout. Yes, he’s a total nerd.
Yet, thanks to this change, the film becomes, note for note, the typical teen romcom, carving the same path. That of romantically motivated deceit we’ve seen over and over again – take, for example: Netflix’s Sierra Burgess is a Loser, released last year.
This isn’t necessarily a criticism of Old Boys. But its theatrical origins inevitably offer little to differentiate the film from the rest of the pack.
The more striking aspect is how MacDonald, alongside screenwriters Luke Ponte and Freddy Syborn, interpret their chosen environment. They offering a smart critique of the hazing, chants and traditions of private school boys. Who are bred to treat entitlement as a celebrated personality trait. Old Boys treats it as a kind of cult of wealth and masculinity, with its pinnacle being “streamers”, a deranged manifestation of rugby that demands its players climb up a wall and hit a tree stump with a square ball to score points.
It’s a sport that Winchester (Jonah Hauer-King) naturally excels at. Since he heralds from an entire clan of “streamers” captains. He serves as the handsome, airheaded suitor of our story, more accurately described. That by Amberson as a “labrador in trousers” and physically incapable of comprehending life without regular skiing trips.
The target of Amberson and Winchester’s affections is Agnes (Pauline Etienne). Whose father is the school’s new French teacher. She’s something of a Nouvelle Vague dream girl, whose idea of courtship is a series of charmingly lo-fi home videos. Where she brandishes signs like Bob Dylan and declares: “Take me to the moon.”
Yet, Agnes has too much life to her to be a simple manic pixie dream girl trope.
As we discover, she’s just as bewildered as the boys when it comes to teenage infatuations. Similarly, Lawther (always excellent. Despite frequently being typecast in this kind of role) elevates Amberson beyond his obvious social awkwardness. That finding deeper notes of isolation and desperation.
Even Winchester comes off as a sympathetic character, as Hauer-King knows exactly when to lean into the character’s puppy-like charm. Although Old Boys finds nothing new to say in revamping a classic. It at least swerves the most obvious pitfalls of the genre to deliver a romcom that’s both sweet and satisfying.
“Old Boys” peels further away from the “Cyrano” template as it jogs cheerfully toward its melancholic but hopeful climax. And while that departure gives the script a little less shape. The last act, in particular, feels somewhat haphazardly arranged — the message of independence and self-possession that emerges from this late left turn is a pleasing one. Nobody quite grows up in the course of “Old Boys,” at least they take charge of their stories: Whether it’s prosaic or poetic, this agreeably gawky film ultimately concludes, your life is best put in your own words.
Directed By: Toby MacDonald
Stars: Alex Lawther, Jonah Hauer-King, Pauline Etienne
Written By: Luke Ponte, Freddy Syborn
Studio: WestEnd Films
CRITIC REVIEWS FOR OLD BOYS
An opportunity to say something, anything, about public school life in Britain is gleefully squandered in this overfamiliar join-the-dots drama from the pen of Jack Whitehall’s gag writer, Freddy Syborn.
This public school take on a conventional coming-of-age story lacks a distinct bite.
Alex Lawther deserves more than being typecast as a posh English schoolboy – but that’s what’s happening again, in this moderate new spin on the Cyrano de Bergerac story.
Philip De Semlyen
This charmingly oddball rom-com exists somewhere between ‘If….’ and ‘Rushmore’ in the canon of schoolboy eccentricity.