Review: ‘Young Plato’

We all have that one teacher that stands out as a guiding figure in our formative years, whether they served as an emotional crutch or a source of newfound knowledge and inspiration. Now imagine that person having to navigate the lives of young boys in Northern Ireland and reconcile that land’s troubled history of violence.

That’s the situation Declan McGrath and Neasa Ni Chianain’s documentary Young Plato situates itself within. For the young boys of Holy Cross, it’s probably disconcerting having a camera follow them around and film their most emotional moments, but it’s a film that excels not only as a straight forward document of a particular place and time, but as a sensitive exploration of the humane teacher-student relationship. In the swath of recent news stories of teachers striking due to poor working conditions or the deplorable fights over recent facial mask regulations, Young Plato strikes at the core of the educational relationship. Empathy, patience, understanding, and discipline. At times, it feels like we’ve lost the ability to extend any of these, so it’s refreshing to see a film that honors these attributes.

Centering on two figures at Holy Cross in 2019 and 2020- philosophy teacher Kevin McArevey and administrator Jan Marie Reel- Young Plato shows these two to be real saints. I doubt they’re faking it for the camera. Anyone like Kevin who genuinely likes Elvis Presley’s music (right down to his phone’s ringtone) is incapable of falsehoods. Likewise, Jan-Marie is often seen as the therapist for certain boys when they’re having pretty terrible days. Her interactions with one student in particular range from understanding to gentle in a matter of seconds as the young boy lights up about his baby sister. It’s these moments that prove the film is coming from a sincere place and could never be scripted.

Outside of the small outbursts or various fights- the most memorable being between two boys who are cousins and, like the violent divide of the area’s past, seem to flare up for no reason other than they can fight- Young Plato exists as an observer to a year in the life of this school. Snatches of videos in the year 2001 are shown as young children are being led into the school while gunshots and vicious taunts are being hurled at them. The boys are asked to reflect on what they’ve seen. Larger portions of the film are given to McArevey as he teaches a philosophy class where the boys are asked to talk about the morals around being hit and their thoughts about whether to fight back or not. It soon becomes clear Young Plato is a document on the perpetuation of violence. Hopefully, this generation will be the one to break it.

Filmed in the handheld style that’s colored the genre for decades, Young Plato is a wonderful documentary that not only makes us care about the students, but the institution of education as a whole. Like Frederick Wiseman’s brilliant and affecting Deaf and Multi-Handicapped (both 1986) and Nicolas Philibert’s To Be and to Have (2002), Young Plato makes us believe children truly are our better angels.

Young Plato opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday September 30th at the Dallas and Plano Angelika locations.