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‘Young Plato’: An educator uses old philosophy to inspire young minds

Documentary looks at the powerful curriculum, inspired by critical thinking, of Belfast’s Holy Cross Boys’ Primary School

Kevin McArevey with students of Holy Cross Boys' Primary School in the documentary “Young Plato.” (Soilsiu Films)
(3 stars)

The documentary filmmaker Neasa Ni Chianain seems to have, in recent years, made eccentric Irish pedagogy the exclusive focus of her interest. Co-directed with her partner David Rane, her charming 2017 film “School Life” looked at Headfort in County Meath, the only primary-age boarding school in Ireland, and one that seems designed to encourage a bit of healthy wildness in its students.

Her latest film, “Young Plato” — directed with Declan McGrath, with Rane turning to producing duties — focuses on Holy Cross Boys’ Primary School in the Ardoyne district of Belfast, a private Catholic institution with a distinctive focus on philosophy to help guide its young pupils in matters of conflict, both external and internal. (The film’s title name-checks only one of several ancient Greek philosophers mentioned in the film. Heraclitus’s famous dictum, “No man ever steps in the same river twice,” is cited, but so are more modern thinkers.)

Just as “School Life” focused on two members of Headfort’s teaching staff, “Plato” centers on Kevin McArevey, Holy Cross’s charismatic principal, an Elvis Presley-obsessed leader with a shaved head, seemingly boundless energy and a remarkable ability to inspire. As much a portrait of an educational maverick as it is of his school — located in a neighborhood struggling with poverty, drugs and the still-not-fully-healed scars of the sectarian strife depicted in last year’s Oscar-winning “Belfast” — “Young Plato” is a fascinating, sometimes funny and often touching film. It’s easy to see why the directors were drawn to McArevey and his school.

“Plato” revolves mostly around the headmaster’s interactions with students — both in groups and one on one — and somewhat less around the day-to-day work of his staff, who can be almost preternaturally patient as they deal with some challenging problems, ranging from petty disagreements to physical fights to feelings of depression. McArevey’s laserlike focus is on critical thinking and open-ended inquiry; the kids all seem hip to the program, but some scenes show McArevey attempting to bring parents, some of whom seem skeptical, on board too. One wonders just how much of Holy Cross’s curriculum bleeds into its students’ home lives. But the impact we’re shown on-screen seems profound.

In a sense, we members of the audience are McArevey’s students as well. His approach is actually less Platonic than Socratic, emphasizing nonjudgmental inquiry, listening and admitting that you don’t have all the answers. In these polarized times, these are lessons that we could all stand to learn.

Unrated. At the Angelika Film Center Mosaic and the Angelika Pop-Up. Contains some strong language. In Irish-accented English with subtitles. 102 minutes.

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