When We Were Boys
- Directed by Sarah Goodman
- Classification: 14A
Sarah Goodman's very good cinéma vérité documentary When We Were Boys takes us inside the rituals of male adolescence at Royal St. George's, an elite Toronto boys school.
If not revelatory, the film is consistently engrossing, a smartly edited sequence of scenes over the course of a couple of years that reveal the pangs of adolescence in the context of social privilege.
The film uses no voice-over, minimal explanatory text (sometimes it's hard to keep the uniformed boys straight) and apparently a lot of access, to assemblies, detention rooms, choir practice and hallway goofing.
There's a central story that focuses on the relationship between two boys - Noah, who everyone seems to know is the son of a MasterCard executive, and Colin - who have been best friends since grade school.
Noah is sweet and well-behaved and a good singer; Colin is more of a cut-up and troublemaker. Over the course of the film, Noah becomes more isolated from Colin's group, and ends up eating lunch at a separate table and walking home alone.
Despite the school's credo, "Manners Maketh Men", boys will be jerks. There are homophobic comments, matter-of-fact face-slapping, and mean teasing. In class, they study Lord of the Flies, with its obviously resonant themes of pecking orders and social control. How much dramatic sculpting is involved isn't clear.
There's a soundtrack by Juno-winning songwriter Jim Guthrie to punch home the emotional moments. The final scene, which brings the boys together a year after the rest of the film, feels somewhat staged. Otherwise, the film flows naturally from the classroom to households throughout the school year.
Wealth, of course, is what makes these kids untypical. These 14-year-olds argue not just about music and sports, but about which are the best airlines to fly. They also show a certain naïveté (a scene in which Noah gets a haircut) about social disparities.
At the same time, their social position is not their achievement, or fault, and you feel for these kids during the moments when adults keep telling them how privileged they are.
The strength of Goodman's documentary is that she uses her camera to build empathy, not pass judgment: Surely it's a hard-enough job being 14 without also being told you're being groomed to save the world.
When We Were Boys runs at the Royal Cinema (608 College St.) Friday and Saturday and from Nov. 9 to 11.