Director Cory Finley takes the good will from his 2017 debut Thoroughbreds and ups the ante even further. Bad Education is a bleak, comical, and surprisingly effective film about a high school finance scandal.
Writer/co-producer Mike Makowsky’s screenplay is remarkable both for its deft construction and for how close the writer is to the events that transpire in it, given that he attended the school where all this happened. Never too jokey or inside-baseball, the film provides coherent exposition and rich character beats without ever feeling forced or dull.
A huge part of the film’s charm is a hapless but charismatic turn by Hugh Jackman as Frank Tassone, the conflicted superintended whose calm, well-groomed professional and personal life belie a turmoil underneath that led to him embezzling millions of dollars in school funds. His assistant Pam (Allison Janney) is unafraid to massage the finances, while parents such as Bob (Ray Romano) are simply thrilled at the results for their children.
Tasked with a simple assignment by the school paper, sophomore Rachel (Geraldine Viswanathan) asks a few questions, and the answers lead her down a path that exposes corruption and upends the entire school board.
The mix of morality play, investigative journalism thriller, and excoriating social commentary gives Bad Education much of its bite, but what makes it such a pleasure is the way these terrific performers navigate the world without any sense of theatrical pretension. Jackman’s particularly great, but kudos to Viswanathan for taking a role that may have seemed underbaked on the page and bringing us along for her journey.
The film takes on an even stranger resonance given that it screened around the same time that a major school admissions scandal rocked several famous Hollywood personalities, with some such as Felicity Huffman actually going to jail for fraudulent behavior. What people do out of greed, especially surrounding a world as fraught as the education of children, leads some people to do truly dastardly things.
Bad Education easily could have been stultified if it were told as some ponderous tale of institutional malfeasance. Instead, the story becomes almost mythic in its exploration of hubris and self-delusion. It’s also damn hilarious, creating a surreal world where even shopping for home improvement supplies feels as tense as a bank heist.
The true story of the scandal is wisely fictionalized. Rachel’s character is made into an avatar for the audience and a conflation of a number of real individuals. The notion of a plucky high school student taking down the corruption in her school system is slightly aggrandized, but it’s also an antidote to the anti-media screeds that are the stuff of political discourse today. Every moment that celebrates journalistic tenacity for the betterment of community is welcomed wholeheartedly.
With its clever storyline, richly drawn characters, fabulous performances, and a nice dose of moral investigation, Bad Education schools lesser movies. It further solidifies Finley’s reputation as a smart and exciting independent filmmaker.