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'Young Plato' Review: A charming, noble documentary

'Young Plato' - Declan McGrath and Neasa Ní Chianáin

Childhood documentaries and fictional coming of age tales occupy a special place in the landscape of world cinema, with the adolescent transition being a fascinating and pivotal dramatic moment in the development of each and every person on the planet. How such young minds are shaped by their immediate environment and the nurture of those who raise them has been explored in such classics as The 400 Blows by François Truffaut as well as Girlhood by Céline Sciamma. 

Sharing more in common with the noble Up series by Michael Apted that tracks the lives of several young people into adulthood, or the documentary To Be and To Have by Nicolas Philibert, the brand new study into the impact of philosophy on young people in Young Plato shares the virtuous mission of such aforementioned films. 

Plonked in Holy Cross Boys Primary Schools in Belfast’s Ardoyne housing estates, this small documentary from directors Declan McGrath and Neasa Ní Chianáin follows the young pupils learning the philosophy of the likes of Plato as they navigate the issues of childhood. With barbed-wire walls still surrounding the school, acting as a stark reminder of the sectarian struggle of Northern Ireland, the philosophy offered by Headmaster Kevin McArevey aims to fix generations of social unrest in the surrounding area. 

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“Violence breeds violence, but you boys have the power to stop it,” McArevey announces to his class as he encourages philosophical discussion in one of his frequent lessons. Teaching the studies of the likes of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, McArevey and the noble documentary offer a genuine route forward for the young subjects of the film, as well for a broken British school system in need of major rejuvenation. 

Taking a step back to provide an observational approach to life in the small Belfast school, the film does well to let the incredible personalities of the documentary speak for themselves, from the inspiring team of teachers to the charming boys themselves. In doing so, Young Plato becomes an impressive, isolated vision into life within a school striving to better the lives of each and every individual who enters through its gates, as well as trying to improve the resilience of the surrounding community itself.

Well integrating key scenes of archive footage that depict the terror of the sectarian struggle, these moments give valuable context to the lives of the community, without hammering home laboured sentimentality. Applying critical philosophical thinking to a violent local history, Young Plato is genuinely constructive in its approach, showing how such logic can empower an individual and break boundaries. 

What results is an utterly compelling documentary that breaks down a problem and offers a solution much like an educational lesson, teaching its subjects and the audience with encouraging thought and discussion.

YOUNG PLATO is released in UK cinemas from March 11th.