Fantastic Fest 2017: 'Bad Genius' Is a Slick, Remarkable Caper About Exam Cheating
by Jeremy Kirk
September 26, 2017
A heist-style drama about genius high school students and their task to pull off the ultimate, cheating scam on behalf of dozens of wealthy peers doesn't quite sound like the nail-biter Bad Genius ends up pulling off, but here we are. The Thai film we do get, which is directed by the very talented Nattawut Poonpiriya, not only brings with it a whip-smart screenplay, it's an incredibly intense caper loaded with crackling dialogue and impressive performances that ranks up there with recent, instant classics like Moneyball and The Social Network. Poonpiriya keeps your attention from beginning to end and ends up delivering one of the tautest thrillers (without really being a thriller) to come along in some time.
The film centers on Lynn (Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying), one of the eponymous geniuses of the title who excels in the 9th grade despite her single father struggling to keep her schooling financially secure. Lynn doesn't set out to become the school's leading organizer when it comes to across-the-board cheating, but, once she helps her friend, Grace (Eisaya Hosuwan), pass a multiple-choice exam, the snowball begins and quickly gets out of Lynn's control.
Soon, the young girl is devising an elaborate scheme involving hand signals to the rest of her fellow classmates just so long as they pay her requested fee, and Lynn quickly becomes the Danny Ocean of exam cheating. It isn't long before high school exams aren't enough, and Lynn, along with a fellow genius at the school, Bank (Chanon Santinatornkul), concoct the ultimate scheme to ensure their fellow students ace the upcoming STIC (SAT) placement exam ensuring a bright future for all of their fellow students.
What amazes the viewer about Bad Genius first is how Poonpiriya, who directed as well as co-wrote the film, keeps the tone of the film in check. It is a serious situation in which Lynn and Bank are putting themselves, but there's a lightness to it all that has more to do with that Danny Ocean reference I made than the actual "heist" going down. The filmmaker allows the fun to bleed into each and every situation and snag that comes along in the students' path to success. This, as well as the inherent suspense that also builds all the way throughout the film, keeps it at an ever-watchable state.
It helps that Poonpiriya's skills with the camera are exceptional, as well. He and first-time cinematographer Phaklao Jiraungkoonkun bring a slickness and style to the imagery that reminds you more than a little bit of the best Michael Mann has to offer. The hallways of the school and examination facility add to the slickness but also bring an idea of coldness to the whole ordeal.
There's a clear message of how calculating and impersonal the idea of placement examinations have become around the world at work in the heart of the film; Poonpiriya and crew never dampening the message while maintaining the film's entertainment value. Though very much an Asian production, Bad Genius tells a universal story, each of the students faced with a potential crisis with which more and more students on the planet seem to be faced. It's a film to which every student faced with his or her future can relate, and it only adds to the success of Bad Genius that it's an incredibly fun watch to boot.
Aided by a resounding success of a cast, to say nothing of how much Chuengcharoensukying's screams for you to cheer for her character's success, Bad Genius deserves its own placement as required viewing for a certain generation. Likewise, Poonpiriya deserves a tremendous amount of credit for not only addressing this subject matter and with a keen sense of levity, but for his all-around skills as a filmmaker. Bad Genius becomes an address to the world that here we have a filmmaker with the skills necessary to break out into the world and claim attention.
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