I really liked Thoroughbreds when it came out a couple years ago. I liked it so much that when I found out this new movie called Bad Education was not a remake of Pedro Almodovar’s wild La mala educación, but something with Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney about a Long Island public school embezzlement scandal, the additional fact that it was Thoroughbreds director Cory Finley’s sophomore feature is what made me think oh, I bet I could have room for two Bad Educations in my life. I have definitely been curious to see what this guy gets up to next.
The answer turns out to be something quite unlike the arch, high-stylish presentation of Thoroughbreds, and entirely great. Most of those dark artistic flourishes have been left on their shelf this time, and it turns out he doesn’t need them at all: this is just such a solid, entertaining movie about fraud and lies and school board members. I was so happy the entire time I was watching this. It is remarkably well constructed—the way the drama builds on itself without calling too much attention to the process is simply a joy. I LOVE A MOVIE WTH REVEALS. PLURAL. Some movies will drop second or third act secrets on you simply for the surprise, where that’s just the way they’re trying to goose the energy of the plot. And some movies are like Bad Education, where each surprise suddenly causes you to recall an earlier scene in a brand new light, and you’re just pointing energetically at the screen while yelling, “Oh! oh!”
It’s actually a true story that Bad Education is telling so well, and if you’re not well-versed in this 2002 financial scandal (the same year Lady Bird took place, incidentally, for your high school fashion reference point), I highly encourage you not to read up on it in advance, and just let this movie unfold the drama for you. The screenplay was written by someone who was actually a student at the Roslyn middle school when this story broke, which I find very charming. This is semi-secretly just a movie about student journalism moxie, and honestly I love that. The whole thing is exactly my flavor of stakes. There’s a bit early on where the young reporter character is getting copies of some school business documents, and notices that one of the ceiling tiles is discolored and slowly leaking while the camera just pushes in on it. It’s one of those moments where I holler “NICE SYMBOLISM,” and mean it—it’s so obvious, but exactly the amount of Fun and Foreboding for me not to resent it in the slightest.
“Fun and foreboding” really is the flavor of all of this. For a movie that primarily takes place in pedestrian, blandly lit interiors, the sense of danger some of these scenes have is fucking off the charts. There’s one scene in a diner where I thought I was going to have get up and do some jumping jacks or something just to work off my mounting nervy energy. And that scene wasn’t even strictly criminal, but just another, related element! Either I would have an actual heart attack were I to watch something like Wolf of Wall Street, or Bad Education just always has its tone perfectly in hand. I’m leaning toward the latter. And it’s an intelligent movie too, thoughtful about what it actually looks like when people justify immoral actions to themselves, with some bonkers ethical arguments that I found really thrilling to slip down like a poorly maintained waterslide, courtesy of the marvelous acting stylings of Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney. They’re both so good here at creating a sensation a lot like that thing in watching The Favourite, where so much of the experience is trying to get a handle on where your character loyalties even ARE at any given moment. A ride!
Also like The Favourite is that this contains my current favorite non-dance-film dance sequence that I’ve seen in a 2020 movie so far (a very special competition for me each year), as well as another FLAWLESS closing credits needle drop with an opening that sounds deceptively score-like until it resolves into a pop song with hilariously on-the-nose lyrics.
Anyway I pitched this movie to my friend who’s an accountant, and also all of you.