Whether or not you’re familiar with all the details of the $11.2 million public school embezzlement scandal in New York in the early 00s, you soon will be after Cory Finley takes to the screen again this festival season. Comparisons to Netflix’s The Laundromat are likely, but even on its own, Bad Education is looking to be a robust and highly-charged feature about the single largest public school embezzlement in history.
While Thoroughbreds might have played out like a modern Heathers, Cory Finley’s second feature Bad Education could be compared to high-octane political thrillers such as The Post. In some ways it’s difficult to compare it to anything because it’s so given to sensationalism. But in depicting this very real scandal, Finley shows a sensibility, exposes a preoccupation with performance and keeping up appearances, and deals with the consequences.
Finley set a high bar with his feature debut Thoroughbreds two years ago, so with his directing potential, it’s little wonder he’s gone on to attract some big players. Not to be confused with 2015’s The Bad Education Movie, a spinoff from the Jack Whitehall-led BBC series, Finley’s latest feature is — how shall I put it — just a little more elegant. No school-led caper, this is a high-stakes political drama that just happens to be set against a school backdrop.
Director: Cory Finley
Release date: September 8, 2019 (TIFF); October 7, 2019 (LFF)
Rating: Not yet rated
Hugh Jackman stars as Frank Tassone, a charismatic New York school superintendent of great repute who learns how to play the system — and the goodwill of parents and benefactors — for profit. Alison Janney stars alongside as his deputy, Pam Gluckin, channeling the vein of her role as the merciless LaVona in I, Tonya. The two make an unexpectedly shining duo on screen, and an interview with the cast at TIFF shows how much thought the actors have dedicated to their roles, which looked like a lot of fun to enact.
Janney and Jackman may initially appear to be an unusual match, but in a Q&A following the screening Finley explained that this unusual match proved very fortuitous. While they knew one another socially before the film, they hadn’t worked together — yet they have a spectacular chemistry on screen. For instance, there’s a fantastic scene where they sit together outside the school and talk plans over lunch. Janney teases Jackman mercilessly with a sandwich, and he accepts a bite with more vigour that I’ve ever seen anyone eat a humble lunch before. This scene was improvised between the two and it fits absolutely seamlessly into the film, texturing their characters in fantastic detail.
Finley seems drawn to human characters with whom he could sympathise, and Frank Tassone is charismatic person who genuinely seemed to care about the wellbeing of his students. In casting Jackman, Finley chose to display those same charismatic and likeable traits to create a character not entirely undeserving of sympathy.
It was a conscious choice to research and explore this particular topic: while the subject might be in the peripheral memory of many Americans, I think it is something that certainly will become more known with the release of the film. There’s an argument to be made for the parallel between corruption of power on an educational level and a wider, more pervasive cynicism in authority figures in government and State institutions.
Finley has once again proven his exceptional eye for detail and sensitivity to nuance in even greater force. The stately, elegant, operatic score is the perfect companion to pitch-black humour. I particularly engaged with the wide-angle filming and long takes, which at once aligned us with the characters and showed how much they were up against. Finley uses establishing shots to orientate us in the characters’ world and especially focuses on framed photographs to tell a story. After all, our approach to photographs in 2002 was a little more permanent and telling than in today’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it social media age.
Talking about the tone of the piece drawing him to the script, Finley mentioned the tone, and how he was intent that it navigated comedy and tragedy, often at the same moment. For example, in Frank’s moments of happiness, when he wins battles against overbearing mothers and insufferable students, it’s at once hilarious how he keeps a smile plastered to his face, and desperately sad that a grown man should have to assert his authority by demeaning those beneath him and lying to those closest to him. Nobody is above his lies: even using close colleagues as scapegoats, he does everything he can to keep abreast of the inevitable and spectacular unravelling of his reputation. Like a captain abandoning ship, he loses credibility and trust in everyone.
There’s no doubt: Bad Education is funny. More than a few times, the whole audience laughed out loud at the shortest line of dialogue or an askew glance from one character to another. The problem is, not everyone is seeing the funny side of the film. Regional paper The Roslyn News only days ago reported how the region and its schools is not associated with the film in any way and that it reflects a scandal that deeply shocked the neighborhood. It seems that, even a decade after it was first uncovered, the subject is still touchy.
The real star of the show is Rachel (Geraldine Viswanathan), a junior student at the high school who is commissioned to write a fluff piece on the school’s expensive new Skywalk project. Encouraged by Frank, no less, to pursue her passion for journalism and to turn it into a serious endeavour, she begins to investigate unusual expense figures in the school’s public record. Her courage and initiative were instrumental in uncovering the scandal, but as with all things that matter, Rachel has to make a decision that might cost her everything — her family’s social status, the trust of Frank and the school authorities, and the crucial acceptance letter to college.
Finley closely observes the complex crossover between education and economics, which had a significant impact on the script development process. It’s an interesting observation that so many of the decisions that are made within school life are influenced by those in power, as if the school is a micro-economy. You may choose to read it as a skewering of modern politics and power, but Bad Education deals with the fallout of consistent lying; in deceiving others, you eventually deceive yourself.