Last September, Cory Finley’s “Bad Education” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival to positive reactions. It was labeled as an “IndieWire Critic’s Pick” by David Ehrlich, and Variety’s Peter Debruge said it was one of Hugh Jackman’s best performances. This true crime story could have been great Oscar bait, until HBO purchased the film for almost $17.5 million.
The story of “Bad Education” takes place downstate in Long Island in the Roslyn Union Free School District at the turn of the century. Beloved superintendent Frank Tassone, played by Jackman, is trying his hardest to make his high school the best in the area. His good intentions hit a speedbump when it’s revealed that his assistant superintendent, Pam Gluckin, played by Allison Janney, has been embezzling from the school. Tassone tries to cover up this scandal, but student journalist Rachel Bhargava, played by Geraldine Viswanathan, intends to blow the lid off one of the biggest public school embezzlement scandals in American history.
This cast is perfect. There isn’t an Oscar for casting, but Ellen Lewis and Kate Sprance deserve a statue for bringing these actors together. In the beginning, before the dirt hits the fan, Jackman plays the superintendent with the hyper sincerity we’ve all seen from a high school teacher before. The scenes where he’s walking through the lobby and saying hi to students who are barely looking at him feel very real. The cast is also rounded out with Alex Wolff, who starred in A24’s horror hit “Hereditary,” as the editor of the school’s paper and Ray Romano, star of “Everybody Loves Raymond,” as a member of the school board.
“Bad Education” has an unexpectedly strong ethos. Writer Mike Makowsky was a seventh-grader in the Roslyn Union Free School District when the scandal first broke. He actually had to miss his tenth high school reunion to attend the premiere of the film. Only Makowsky could have provided details like the school’s “snow day magic wand,” which lets the film’s version of Roslyn feel less like a set and more like a living, breathing location.
When it comes to the characters of the story, Makowsky is not interested in just evocation. He is not angry at the corruption but more disappointed. That maturity has definitely developed over time, and he gives Pam Gluckin a moment to bear it all in an attempt to understand how they got there, as the real-life culprits are still not forgiven. It’s a powerful scene that would be shown at the Academy Awards for Allison Janney’s second Oscar nomination if this did get a theatrical release.
All of the other behind the scenes artists deserve recognition too. Michael Abels, who has revolutionized modern horror scores with his work on Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” and “Us,” scores the film with a real flare. Editor Louise Ford brings all of this together beautifully with a great montage in the third act that, without spoiling it, involves Tassone on a dance floor. Soundtracked beautifully, it is the prime example of the humanity of the film by giving Tassone a brief moment of peace
The fact that “Bad Education” is on HBO is a double-edged sword. It’s a shame that it wasn’t theatrically released because it’s a cinematic work that feels like it should be experienced on the big screen. However, if it were picked up for distribution, it may have been one of the many films that are getting pushed to the end of the year because of the coronavirus. If you have HBO, which Plattsburgh State does provide to all on-campus students, then it’s a great way to spend two hours during your quarantine.
Email Cameron Kaercher at firstname.lastname@example.org