12A (N. Ireland) | 1h 42min | Documentary | 23 September 2022 (USA)
The pupils of Holy Cross Boys School (ages 4–11) have grown up knowing only peace in Northern Ireland. Yet their Ardoyne neighborhood of North Belfast remains marked by the destruction and militant graffiti of “The Troubles.” In this case, it is quite apt to say that it looks like a demilitarized zone.
Headmaster Kevin McArevey and his staff are old enough to remember war and understand the fragility of the current peace. Rather logically, they emphasize nonviolent conflict resolution in their teachings. However, McArevey’s reliance on ancient Greek philosophers is somewhat surprising, but pleasantly so.
Filmmakers Neasa Ni Chianain and Declan McGrath observe McArevey and his colleagues as they instruct, counsel, discipline, and generally keep the peace at Holy Cross in their documentary “Young Plato.”
In 2001, there was an ugly incident involving former-Loyalist protesters outside Holy Cross’s sister school for girls. McArevey’s students are shocked by the video they watch in class, because they have never experienced anything like it, but it is still fresh in his faculty members’ memories. Convincing his students to avoid violence is not simply a way to encourage good classroom behavior. Potentially, it holds life-and-death implications for the community.
Not an Ordinary Headmaster
McArevey is earnest, and he has character. As an Elvis Presley-loving black belt, he is not a typical parochial school administrator. McArevey is definitely not a delegator either. He regularly teaches a philosophy class in which he relies on the Socratic Method (and Presley lyrics). In addition to the ethics of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, he also cites Stoic philosophers to encourage empathy in his students and train them to control their emotions.
During the months before and after the CCP-virus shutdown (which closed schools throughout Northern Ireland) that interrupted the filmmakers’ visit to Holy Cross, we never see any explicitly religious, sectarian, or class-based conflict among the pupils—though, admittedly, the student body is presumably uniformly Catholic.
In fact, McArevey is most often called to make peace between a pair of estranged cousins. However, drugs and crime have become a constant source of danger in their depressed neighborhood.
McArevey and Holy Cross do seem to make a positive difference in their students’ lives. At least, the way Ni Chianain and McGrath present and edit their footage leads viewers to such a conclusion.
Ironically, the decision to close the school during the early days of China leader Xi’s pandemic arguably seems to have put the students at greater risk than had they maintained in-person instruction, at least judging from the shocking volume of incidents with online predators the students relate to McArevey on their first day back.
Back to the Classics
It is also rather satisfying to see McArevey’s success incorporating classical philosophy into the Holy Cross curriculum. In some ways, “Young Plato” vindicates advocates of an education based on the “Great Books” of Western Civilization.
If the concepts of Plato and Aristotle are accessible and relevant to Holy Cross’s young working-class students, any reasonably mature college freshman should be able to learn from such a rigorous curriculum.
McArevey’s Elvis fandom gives the film a bit of a marketing hook, but there is more substance to him than mere Graceland references. He is an unusually committed and compassionate authority figure for a lot of kids who are in dire need of one.
In fact, McArevey will resonate with fans of great biographical dramas like “Stand and Deliver,” based on the life of beloved East Los Angeles math teacher Jaime Escalante, and “Lean on Me,” which was inspired by controversial Patterson, New Jersey, principal Joe Clark. Much like them, McArevey reminds us that nobody was ever inspired by teachers who allowed their students to settle for average.
Better Wrap-Up Needed
What McArevey and his staff have accomplished at Holy Cross is definitely worthy of documentary attention. However, Ni Chianain and McGrath do not end with a great narrative climax or a big emotional crescendo. It is possible that the pandemic interrupted their rhythm, forcing them to make do with their shorter post-shutdown footage as best they could.
The resulting documentary still has a great deal of merit, but it lacks a summation that ties everything together.
Still, it is nice to see McArevey and company making a difference with great ideas from the Western canon. Evidently, Irish school documentaries are Ni Chianain’s specialty, since she previously co-helmed “School Life,” which documented a year at a high-achieving Irish boarding school. That was probably a warmer, more accessible film, but “Young Plato” has more applicable lessons for policymakers and pedagogues.
Respectfully recommended for the lessons it documents, “Young Plato” opened at the Angelika Theater in New York on Sept. 23.
Directors: Neasa Ni Chianain and Declan McGrath
Running Time: 1 hour, 42 minutes
MPAA Rating: A12 (N. Ireland)
Release Date: Sept. 23, 2022
Rating: 3.5 out of 5