David Gilmour’s 15-year-old son did not just hate school. He seemed to have a psychological allergy to it.
Gilmour feared he might lose his son forever if he forced him to stay in class, hopelessly flunking. Instead, he did something he recommends to no other parent: He told his boy he could drop out and watch movies instead.
The catch: Jesse Gilmour would have to watch the films with his dad, a novelist, film critic and TV documentary host in Toronto.
That latter job was coming to an end, so David Gilmour had plenty of time to take on this last-ditch attempt at educating Jesse.
“I realized the battle was already lost, that we were deluding ourselves if we felt we could force this kid to do anything in school. It was only a question of whether we were going to lose him, as well,” said Gilmour, who chronicles the experiment in the new book “The Film Club” (Twelve).
“He wasn’t like some belligerent, sullen kid. He was a great, sunny guy who happened to hate high school. He was ill-served by going to school. He likes to talk, and he likes to watch movies, so I thought, let’s give the guy something to do that gives him pleasure and see where he goes.”
After Jesse dropped out of 10th grade in 2001, Gilmour started their viewing off with “The 400 Blows,” Francois Truffaut’s early masterpiece about a Paris teenager who turns to petty crime in rebellion against neglectful parents and a repressive school life.
Jesse’s reaction to “The 400 Blows”? “A bit boring,” he told his dad.
But the movie sparked the first dialogue of the Film Club, Jesse revealing that he had worried greatly about failing school and now feared he might have ruined his life.
Gilmour took that as a positive sign, telling Jesse it meant “you’re not going to relax into a bad life.”
From that far-flung beginning, they worked through movies grand, good, titillating and awful, from “Mean Streets” and “Roman Holiday” to “La Femme Nikita” and “Plan 9 From Outer Space.”
They did a horror festival (“Rosemary’s Baby,” “Psycho”) and a guilty-pleasures segment (“Rocky III,” “Under Siege”). They watched American classics (“On the Waterfront,” “To Have and Have Not”). They sampled foreign-language masters (“La Dolce Vita,” “The Bicycle Thief”).
The Film Club lasted a bit more than three years, until Jesse was 19. The Gilmour boys watched and discussed about 350 movies.
The book recounts their remarkably candid talks at a time in life when teenagers and parents often are drifting apart. Jesse looks to his father for advice and reassurance over bad breakups with girlfriends. He joins a hip-hop duo, Corrupted Nostalgia, amusingly shutting his curious pop out of his early club gigs.
Father and son share a harrowing adventure with street toughs during a trip to Cuba with Gilmour’s ex-wife, Jesse’s mother. And Jesse and Gilmour’s current wife strike up their own chat club over cigarettes on the porch.
Finding work in a restaurant kitchen, Jesse begins a slow graduation from the Film Club, and his father wistfully watches his son ease into the adult world.
As the Film Club wound down, Gilmour did a buried-treasures program (“Quiz Show,” “The Last Detail”). By then, Jesse was correcting his father over which cinematographer shot “Klute” and casually describing the graininess of early Fassbinder films. He aced his dad’s pop quiz on such matters as French New Wave innovations and which cinematographer Ingmar Bergman and Woody Allen had in common.
Then Jesse went back to school. Tutored by his mother, a teacher turned stage actress, Jesse passed his exam for a high school equivalency diploma, later studying literature for a year at the University of Toronto, where his father now teaches.
Both Gilmours emphatically said they would never advise other parents to follow their example when a child is struggling in school. At the time, David Gilmour second-guessed himself and wondered if he was jeopardizing his son’s future for some self-serving need of his own.
“I worried I was making use of him as an example of my own hipness,” Gilmour said. “There was something that flattered my vanity about this decision to let him drop out of school and watch movies.”
It turned out to be the right move for Jesse, who said he probably would have left home if his father had not recognized he needed something other than school.
“If he hadn’t done something like that, he wouldn’t have been my dad. I think that three years we spent together formed me as a person,” said Jesse Gilmour, now 22, working as a restaurant cook in Vancouver and mulling a career as a filmmaker.
“I don’t think you necessarily learn life lessons from films. I think the only life lessons you learn are from knocking yourself around and actually living. But we’d have conversations that sprang out of these films. I did learn from that, things guys need to talk about, heartbreak and drugs and all that. It happened to be movies, but it could have been something else my dad and I did. I think it was more about us spending time together.”
Jesse recently went to Vietnam and wrote a screenplay, which got him accepted to a film school in Prague. But he found himself up against his old dislike of sitting in classrooms and listening to others talk.
He figured he could go the Martin Scorsese route — deep immersion in the art at film school — or the Quentin Tarantino path — learning how to direct movies by watching them, then going out and making them.
He chose the Tarantino course, turning down the film-school offer so he could hit the streets of Toronto and make his movie, armed with everything he learned from his dad in the Film Club.