Writer: Mike Makowsky
Director: Cory Finley
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Thinking about your teachers as real people and considering what they really got up to at school is a strange concept so vested are they with institutional and educative authority. Having wives, husbands and hobbies is one thing, but imagine them committing major misdeeds right under your nose. Cory Finley’s new film Bad Education discovers exactly that as a student reporter at a high school newspaper broke one of the biggest financial scandals in American scholastic history.
Frank Tassone is loved by students, staff and parents alike; he’s charming, kind and a genuinely good teacher although his role as Superintendent of Roslyn High School leaves him with little time in the classroom. But when his deputy Pam Gluckin is caught embezzling school funds Frank must choose between the Board’s demands and his old friend, until a student reporter uncovers a much bigger scandal within in a pile of Purchase Orders.
The US high school movie had a very long life from the 1980s to early 2000s with The Breakfast Club, Mean Girls and 10 Things I Hate About You becoming a training ground for young American actors who’ve gone on to bigger stardom. Finley’s film, however, is quite different taking a lightly satirical tone and an adult perspective on the business of running a school and managing the complex hierarchy with governors and auditors.
Finley has a strong grasp of tone which is well maintained throughout the film and he handles the surprising twists and revelations with confidence and humour, making them a surprise to anyone who doesn’t know the story already. One of Bad Education’s most enjoyable aspects is the quick acceleration of events that builds a downward spiral from the first revelation allowing the audience to understand the extraordinary chain of events that made this scandal economically shocking as well as creating a feel for the personal betrayals within Roslyn. Finley makes this feel like a stain slowly spreading through the staff as the film unfolds but with a knowing style that keeps it fresh and entertaining.
Hugh Jackman gives one of his most layered performances as Frank, a man obsessed with his appearance and certain that he is one of the good guys. Frank is key to the shape of the film, partly seen from his perspective until Finley double bluffs the audience, Jackman captures all the politician-like allure of a charming leader who loves his position of influence but, as events soon suggest, he is a character with a few secrets of his own. Jackman is particularly good at revealing the façade and self-illusion that sit beneath the surface of Frank’s attentiveness.
Alison Janey as Pam is equally good showing the professional administrator that everyone admired and the entitled venality beneath, which even after being caught she expects her status will ensure it’s all quietly brushed under the carpet. School newspaper reporter Rachel (Geraldine Viswanathan) show great tenacity as the student uncovering something on a scale that even she never quite realises but operating under the radar enough for the senior leadership team to barely notice.
Finley’s film is full of satirical humour and nicely pitched characterisation that feel both familiar as high school tropes and suitably shocking when it all comes tumbling down. There is always a price to pay for schools in pursuit of League Table status and for the staff who get their institution to number one, the rewards may not be good enough. Bad Education suggests that an educational policy that pushes students to the best schools in the best areas to get to the best universities will mean some places need to cheat along the way.
The BFI London Film Festival runs from 2 October to 13 October