Young Plato (2022)

Inspiring ‘Plato’ has the right philosophy

I’m no doctor, but please allow me to prescribe “Young Plato” as a potential cure for what ails our increasingly fractured society. This charming and profound documentary blossoming from Northern Ireland, of all places, is an elixir for the mind, body and soul.

Peace through philosophy, that’s the fascinating credo of Kevin McArevey, the Elvis-worshiping, zen-like principal of Holy Cross Boys’ Primary School in the depressed Ardoyne section of North Belfast. Plato, Socrates, Confucius and Elvis have nothing on this critical thinker whose own checkered history lends credibility to his messiah-like hold over a student body haunted by the past, present and future in a locale where war, not peace, is the norm.

A bald, Gaelic disciple of Martin Luther King Jr., McArevey eats, sleeps and breathes non-violence. But convincing his young charges to buy into that philosophy is often impeded by the troubled home lives of students exposed daily to the ravages of drugs, alcohol and suicide. His pathway to cutting through that outside discord is what makes McArevey — and “Young Plato” — so relentlessly inspiring.

It begins at the “philosophy board,” where his precocious, prepubescent pupils eagerly offer ideas on the best ways to calm feelings of anger, anxiety and insignificance. Taking a cue from the ancient Greeks, McArevey, as teacher, simultaneously learns from the young scholars he emboldens to think independently. He floats a subject, and they respond with thoughts that are jotted down on the board and ultimately molded into a central idea that seldom fails to sway impressionable minds. The objective is to break the cycle of violence that has been a mainstay in Belfast since the Troubles began in 1968.

McArevey is just one man, a Sisyphus pushing the boulder of 50-plus years of history up a steep incline of hatred and distrust. Like King, he’s been to the mountaintop, after years of being drunk, violent and infused with anger. He knows the way out, but will these kids follow? From what directors Declan McGrath and Neasa Ni Chianain reveal through a year’s worth of remarkable footage, the answer is a resounding yes, although some are more reluctant than others. But even when the few slip up, mostly in schoolyard skirmishes, he calmly addresses the combatants, placing the onus on them to examine and discover the error of their ways.

It’s amusing watching the children literally shake in their shoes as they confront the sources of their anger in hopes of quickly coming up with an answer they know will please McArevey. But there’s much melancholy, too; heartbreaking instances of home lives diminished by divorce and the passing of one boy’s mother. Hers is not the only death we encounter. There’s also the grief expressed over a former student’s suicide, a too-common outcome in a neighborhood where ghosts born of poverty and depression haunt the streets.

McArevey knows he can’t save them all, but he’s not going to stop trying. To him, there’s no such thing as a bad kid, just uninspired thinkers. And to watch him redirect negative mindsets to a place of harmony and contentment is not just rewarding to him and his students; it also uplifts us. How ironic that a school gated to protect against the outside world has become the epicenter of what could be the gateway to not just peace, love and understanding, but also the freeing of minds long cluttered with resentment and suspicion of the “other.” Can’t we all just get along? At Holy Cross, that’s not just an idle wish; it’s a way of life.

Movie review

Young Plato

Rated: Not rated

Featuring: Principal Kevin McArevey and the students and teachers at Holy Cross Boys’ Primary School in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Directors: Declan McGrath and Neasa Ni Chianain

Writers: Etienne Essery, Declan McGrath and Neasa Ni Chianain

Run time: 102 minutes

Grade: A-

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