HHere is a documentary for anyone who has ever suffered from impostor syndrome or ever dreamed of going back in time to their school days, to reverse all that heartbreak and humiliation. In other words: all of us.
In 1995, a failed 32-year-old medical student named Brian MacKinnon became world history and legend when it emerged that he had, two years earlier, posed as a teenager named Brandon Lee to return to his old school, Bearsden Academy in Glasgow, taught by his former teachers who didn’t recognize him, just so he could retake his higher exams and re-enroll in medical schools, which wouldn’t admit anyone over 30.
One of his classmates was Jono McLeod, and it was McLeod who made this film about McKinnon’s tragicomedy extraordinaire, interviewing his school contemporaries and using animated sequences with Lulu and Clare Grogan voicing secondary characters. He also interviews MacKinnon himself who didn’t want to appear on camera, lip-synched instead by actor Alan Cumming. It is a verbatim-cinema effect which is intriguing if misleading. Cumming has a naturally approachable and sympathetic face while MacKinnon’s is emptier and more like a mask.
With jaw-dropping sass, this grown man, not so far off middle-aged, donned a school uniform and stalked his way to class, wowing the students who wouldn’t mention how bad he looked. looks strangely old, delighted teachers with his intelligence and maturity. and even took the lead role in the school play, South Pacific, to universal acclaim, singing the line: “I’m younger than spring…!” He had to kiss his 16-year-old lead wife, a disputed moment that is the subject of this film’s big reveal. MacKinnon avoided having to present a birth certificate to the teacher in charge of admissions – who declined to be interviewed – by bogging her down with a nonsensical story about being tutored when he was traveling across Canada with his now deceased opera singer mother who was estranged from his college professor father.
He could have got away with it completely. In fact, he got away with it completely, in that he was admitted to the medical school at the University of Dundee, but expelled in his freshman year when the scandal broke, either because a classmate had seen his passport while vacationing in Spain with him, either because MacKinnon couldn’t help but confess – it’s not entirely clear.
Which brings us to the semi-recognized elephant in the room. Wasn’t there something revolting about this man in his thirties dating teenage girls? Fascinatingly, everyone in the South Pacific cast (including MacKinnon and his leading lady) and everyone who saw it, remembers the climactic kiss on stage was embarrassing, of course, because it was a hit. platonic beak so awkward. But McLeod then shows the video taken from the performance, which reveals something very different: a pretty definitive kiss. The memory of groupthink is eclipsed by facts. Then there’s the sad issue of MacKinnon’s elderly mother and all she knew about his fraud.
It’s a film that could stand alongside other “rigged” films, like Louis Myles’ Kaiser: The Greatest Footballer Who Never Played Football or Bart Layton’s The Imposter, in that it shows us not just a rational con man coldly performing a dangerous pretense to get what he wants, but a sociopath plagued by something beyond his conscious control. And you could compare it to many high school movies: after all, the whole high school movie genre is run by thirty-something screenwriters who are obsessed with their school days.
My own theory is that MacKinnon’s spectacular dysfunctional meltdown helped create the market for the hugely popular but toxically nostalgic Friends Reunited website, launched five years later in 2000. He was the guy crazy enough to live the dream: not the dream of being a student doctor (which is entirely incidental to the story) but the dream (or nightmare) of being a teenager for the second time.