It may share its name with a Jack Whitehall classroom sitcom and its 2015 big screen spin-off, but Bad Education (sans the “The Movie” subtitle) is all the more troubling in the fact that it’s based on a real-life incident.
When Deputy Superintendent Pam Gluckin (a leonine Allison Janney) is found to have embezzled funds from the Roslyn school district, Superintendent Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman, clean as a freshly-plucked chicken) makes the case against the calling police.
He explains the ensuing scandal would destroy Roslyn’s hard-won placement in the school district rankings and harm students’ chances of getting into top-tier universities. It might even, he plausibly suggests, tank the local housing market, much to the terror of schoolboard president and property investor, Bob Spicer (a wide-eyed, credulous Ray Romano).
The decision is made to sweep it under the rug: Pam will repay the money – an initial figure is given as $250,000 – and quietly resign. And therein lies the rub…
Bad Education is a case study of how easily people are misled – even by themselves. The danger is when we stop questioning ourselves.
Kids holding adults to account is something of a trend in modern discourse, whether it’s climate activist Greta Thunberg or, back in 2002, student reporter Rachel Bhargava (Geraldine Viswanathan), who delves into the finances behind Rosyln’s new $7.5 million construction project, the SkyBridge, a beloved boondoggle, and discovers the numbers don’t add up.
All this because Frank told her not to settle for writing a puff piece.
Mike Makowsky was a student at Rosyln at the time the story broke and his tight, well-observed script captures the contradiction of these public servants who care earnestly about the community – Frank remembers every student he ever taught – but are deeply compromised by their desire to be seen as wealthy and successful.
Much of the film’s black comedy comes from the overlap between sincerity and self-servingness, as when the school board sympathetically forgive Pam on the basis of, “you know, the sociopathy”.
As Pam says when agreeing to buy her niece’s (Annaleigh Ashford) son a Playstation on the school credit card, it doesn’t matter so long as the books are seen to balance.
Pam’s meathead son (Jimmy Tatro) isn’t so careful, blowing the whole game by using the wrong card. A mundane but consequential sequence of his shopping for home improvement supplies is grandly underscored by Michael Abel’s dark orchestral score.
Janney is deliciously arch as the deceptive Pam and Jackman gives a career-best performance as a public servant whose perfectly-preened, if slightly gaunt, veneer is beginning to crack under pressure.
A scene where a demanding parent subjects him to her child’s halting recitation of a letter “they” wrote hints at the depths of repressed frustration that lie just below the nip-tucked façade.
Cinematographer Lyle Vincent shoots their unprepossessing offices, the basement into which Rachel delves in search of receipts, in the wide lens, unflattering lighting style of All The President’s Men.
All of which melds perfectly with Cory Finley’s tight, psychologically-driven direction. As with Thoroughbreds, his directorial debut, Finley paints a portrait of the dangers of entitlement. He’d be a perfect fit for Showtime’s newly announced Ripley series, there are undertones of Patricia Highsmith throughout.
Having been snapped up by HBO rules Bad Education out of the Oscar race, but it’ll be a hard one to beat come next year’s Emmys. If only they’d take a red pen to the title.