Bad Education Review
Just as he did in his highly entertaining debut Thoroughbreds, Cory Finley’s second film Bad Education peeks behind the veneer of well-to-do white middle class America to expose an ugly underbelly. Based on a 2004 New York Magazine article called ‘The Bad Superintendent’ by Robert Kolker, and with a script written by Mike Makowsky, Finley’s film recalls the largest public school embezzlement in US history, which saw $11.2 million stolen from school budgets by staff management.
HBO picked up the film at TIFF last year for a whopping $20m and given the drastic change to cinema this year it has inadvertently turned into one of the year’s biggest releases so far. With the Academy’s new rules also including digital releases for consideration it should also allow Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney to be in contention for award nominations (should the Oscars still go ahead next year). Jackman takes centre stage as superintendent Frank Tassone, while Janney’s Pam Gluckin is eventually sidelined, robbing the film of a performance that would likely have overshadowed Jackman’s if given enough time and space.
Frank is the all-round good guy that parents, staff and governing board members adore, running a tight ship that produces sensational academic results. It’s a white-and-bright environment supported by pushy parents eager to get their kids into Ivy League universities. The installation of a new $8 million sky bridge is set to be one of the crowning glories of Frank’s career but when there’s so much money sloshing around it should come as little surprise that some – well, a lot – also goes missing. And so it all comes to light when newly recruited high school newspaper reporter Rachel (Geraldine Viswanathan) starts digging into invoices and accounting procedures to expose the dirty truth.
Entertaining in the main, Bad Education relies on dark comedy to lighten the load off Frank and Pam’s financial misdemeanours. The script remains light on details about how the two were able to get away with it for so long and just how implicit others may have been in the scam, despite the many accusations flying around. Finley employs a similar sense of verve and style seen in his debut, keeping a tight rein on camera movement and embellishing the visuals with small flourishes that ingratiate us into the increasingly icky interior of these people's lives.
What it wisely manages to avoid is turning them into caricatures, although it does come very close on occasion. The lack of clarity behind Frank and Pam’s motivations accentuates their more obvious traits, although time is taken (especially on Frank’s part) to humanise them away from their school activities. Jackman turns on the charm as the leader who is too good to be true (and evidently is) while further corrupting his private life with more lies and deceits. Janney excels at showing spiteful undercurrents to her characters but isn’t given the chance to expand on her performance due to her absence for large parts of the story.
Finley’s film is engrossing in the first half, but starts to lose momentum around the midway point when further interrogation is needed. It tries to balance three personal perspectives between Frank, Pam and Rachel (whose own father is dealing with the fallout of another scandal revealed late on) and inevitably undermines its ability to do them justice. At the same time it remains too ambiguous about how it views the corruption and about anyone who may have been affected by it. All-round the performances are great, with standout support from Ray Romano and Annaleigh Ashford, but you are left wishing the script went beyond surface level and was willing to get its hands dirty in shovelling the dirt.
Bad Education will be available to watch on Sky Cinema and Sky Cinema Pass on NOW TV from July 11.