Transplanting a classic tale of romantic subterfuge to a 1980s school setting, this infectiously odd coming-of-age yarn does for ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’ what ‘10 Things I Hate About You’ did for ‘The Taming of the Shrew’. Admittedly, there’s nothing Heath Ledger-y about its mousey protagonist, Amberson (Alex Lawther), a shy but brainy type who is easy pickings for English public school Caldermount’s bullies. But then the school’s sporting hero ropes him in to help woo the French teacher’s daughter, and… well, you probably know the rest from when Steve Martin or Gérard Depardieu did it.
What elevates ‘Old Boys’ above well-worn literary transplant and nerds-vs-jocks cliché is its witty dissection of English upper-class zealotry. Caldermount is more of a cult than a seat of learning, where glory awaits pupils who master its arcane, violent sport Streamers (imagine Quidditch with less flying and more GBH) and ‘The Founder’ is regularly saluted with bizarre foot-stomping rituals.
The deadpan Lawther brings subtle shades of subversion to his gawky character, fuelled by some nice lines (‘You’re a minnow, and it’s sink or swim,’ a teacher tells him. ‘Minnows can swim, sir.’) and a permanent air of bemusement. Debut director Toby MacDonald has fun with the analogue period detail – the courtship unfolds partly via punk-art VHS short films – and shakes off an obvious debt to Wes Anderson and Michel Gondry to sketch something fresh and oddly charming from a familiar tale.