Writer and director Cory Finley burst onto the scene almost out of nowhere with his 2018 debut Thoroughbreds. His career started as a playwright, and impressed Oscar winners Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (The Descendants) enough to produce the venture. Not only was the script greenlit, but Finley was allowed to direct it himself. He’d never been on a film set before.
Thoroughbreds is fantastic and was one of my favourite films from that year, showing off not only marvellous performances from Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke (as well as the final film role for Anton Yelchin), but Finley as an abnormally talented director who could use a camera like an arm extension.
His 2020 film, Bad Education, is simply a further development of an exceptional, growing filmmaker, working from a terrific script and using some of the best actors today at their peak.
Based on the true story of the Roslyn High School embezzlement scandal from 2004, in which two superintendents (played by Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney) of the New Jersey public school district used millions of taxpayer dollars for their own personal uses, eventually leading into a web of lies and deceit that brought down the once-high reputation of the notable school district. Though creative liberties have been taken with the story, most of it is coming from a deep place of truth, not only because the filmmakers were in contact with many of the former teachers and locals of the district, but also because the screenwriter Mike Makowsky went to Roslyn High while the scandal was going on.
There is a pervasive sense of realism through everything that happens, but it’s never boring or alienating. At first, most characters are talking about school rankings and budgetary issues, leaving you slightly unsure as to what this is all about. Yet Finley crafts enough building tension to warrant your patience, and before long, you are completely wrapped up in the entire plot, always dancing between whose side you’re really on.
Makowsky has said in interviews that his first few drafts painted Hugh Jackman’s character as a straightforward villain of the story, with Geraldine Viswanathan’s wannabe journalist Rachel the all-out hero. The latter remains true in the finished film, but after consulting with people Makowsky grew up around and others who directly knew Jackman’s Frank Tassone, he realised that while Tassone made horrible decisions, he was for the longest time a source of positivity and determination in the school system, uplifting children and striving for the school’s betterment. He is still a criminal and should never have done what he did, but you do still feel sorry in the end for a man who just wanted to improve a broken school system on at least a local level.
Jackman is simply brilliant as Tassone, nailing that dance of emotions between unending positivity and charm, as well as having that anxious and remorseful streak in his nature that lends itself to creating a complex and morally ambiguous character. Janney is also brilliant, but in the opposite way to Jackman. Jackman’s Tassone is a nice guy at first, smiling and greeting all students with an open stride. Janney’s Pam Gluckin is a stern, sharp-witted and brutally honest block of ice, as dedicated as Jackman, yet also a little too happy to do the wrong things she’s doing. Both characters hold your attentions in vastly different ways and show off yet more terrific performances from two fantastic actors.
None of this is to detract from the superb supporting cast made up of other excellent performers like the aforementioned Viswanathan, Alex Wolff, Rafael Casal, Annaleigh Ashford, Hari Dhillon, and Ray Romano, amongst others. All of them give effective and never-distracting performances, with Viswanathan taking a welcoming catalyst role, exampling how she is one of our most promising young performers working today. And also she’s Australian so hell yeah!
While it may take a while to get going and really get to the meat of the story, Bad Education is one of the best of the year so far. It has a few notes of surprising poignancy as we see desperate people try to act selflessly but instead do something stupidly selfish. Some of the worst things imaginable have been done with the best intentions. Touching as well upon corruption within local government and the exploitation of labour, as well as being a stealth journalism movie, Bad Education is a beautifully shot (on 35mm film), disturbingly sonorous (thanks composer Michael Abels), and all around fantastic sophomoric effort from director Cory Finley.
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