Old Boys uses the classic Cyrano de Bergerac love triangle plot as its basis, but takes the action to a British boarding school in the 1980s. Scholarship student Amberson (Alex Lawther) is the nerdy protagonist, often the butt of his peers’ jokes and the victim of his teachers’ arrogance. A chance encounter with the French tutor’s daughter Agnes (Pauline Etienne) gives him something to daydream about. Soon enough, however, the girl notices the handsome and popular Winchester (Jonah Hauer-King), and she entrusts Amberson with a videotaped message for her crush. Having neither wit nor artistic flair, Winchester relies on Amberson’s skills and emotional intelligence to woo the girl on his behalf, and it is just a matter of time before the situation gets complicated and out of hand.
As a comedy, director Toby MacDonald’s debut feature leaves much to be desired. Neither the bullying, the pomposity of the teachers nor the misuse of French words work very well as humour devices. The pivotal component in the story – namely the series of exchanges between the three main characters – feels forced and unrealistic in its execution. It seems unlikely that the alpha-male leader of the group would put his pride aside and blindly place himself in the hands of the least popular boy, all to pursue someone he actually shows very little interest in. Besides, despite the military-like discipline of the school, the establishment seems to allow time and access to the sophisticated equipment required for shooting and editing the videos through which the young lovers communicate. On top of this, a lack of stimulating dialogue means that there is little to clutch on to when evaluating the overall effectiveness of the film.
Since the central part of the plot is borrowed from Rostand’s famous play, one expects an ulterior motive for presenting the formula again, but both the entertainment factor and psychological dimension are barely perceptible. The picture seems like a missed opportunity for an insightful, sophisticated exploration of the dynamics between young boys as they learn to handle and express their feelings within a harsh environment. Old Boys also fails to take advantage of the school’s strict rules and codes of manliness to create sharp humour and tragicomical scenarios. While it has its sweet moments, the film has too little substance to make any sort of impact.
Old Boys is released nationwide on 22nd February 2019.
Watch the trailer for Old Boys here: