'Bad Genius' Turns Standardized Tests Into A Teen Heist Thriller
When you’re able to turn the mundane experience of taking a standardized test into an exciting, high-stakes game in the same vein as American films like Ocean’s Eleven, The Fast And The Furious, and The Italian Job, then you're on to the same thing that director Nattawut Poonpiriya has with Bad Genius, a critically-acclaimed Thai film that's showing in Philippine theaters this month.
Bad Genius gives away most of its plot in the trailers and at the beginning of the movie. Yet still, the film is able to sustain a nail-biting level of tension throughout.
Lynn is an honor student who’s been granted scholarship so she can attend a prestigious high school. There she meets Grace, a failing student who needs to pass so she can participate in her extracurricular activities. Lynn takes pity on her new friend and helps her cheat on a math test. Grace’s boyfriend Pat finds out and offers to pay for her services so he and the rest of his crew of rich kids can get higher marks. Lynn, who’s struggling financially, is forced to take the offer so she can help her father pay for the miscellaneous school expenses. And the story just escalates from there.
The brilliant sound design plays a big role in making it a thrilling ride. The sharp sound of a lead pencil hastily scratching against paper, and the ticking of the clock in time with a wildly thumping heartbeat accompany a frenzied score that encapsulates the anxiety and dread of taking tests.
The cinematography also lent a vivid contrast between the film's planning stage and the main event. A discussion among the main characters during the events leading up to the climax is edited into supercuts and shot in various angles so that it never feels too dragging.
On the other hand, once the test begins, it becomes a long, drawn-out, excruciating experience, accurately depicting how the characters are feeling. The absence of dialogue during these moments gives a heightened sense of atmosphere, classmates staring in dumbfounded silence at their papers; others quickly scribbling answers, while some are sweating profusely. The pace picks up a bit whenever Lynn starts signaling the answers, disrupting the established long-shot. As every exam scene unfolds, you can't help but be taken back to your time as a student taking a college entrance test.
The concept of a teen heist is not unique, however, as 2004's The Perfect Score, an American film, shared a similar premise. However, The Perfect Score depicted a more overt reference to the heist genre, including actually breaking into a facility; whereas Bad Genius displayed more subtlety in the execution of an elaborate caper without stretching the suspension of disbelief too thin.
Lynn’s story is not only about the questionable morality of helping others cheat to succeed, but also a critique on how exploitative the prevailing educational system can be. The third-world problems of rising tuition fees, unnecessary expenditures, and the unfair advantages of the upper class due to a growing socioeconomic division are easily relatable in the Filipino context. Rich kids Pat and Grace throw Baht at their problems while the working class Lynn and Bank grab every opportunity to earn money for their families. The movie depicts the extreme pressure and sky-high expectations imposed on students as they are pushed into a position of dishonesty in order to survive.
Ironically, as the main characters and masterminds plot and scheme, they begin to display different facets of their intelligence. The underlying organizational skills, public speaking abilities, and creativity shine through the characters. Unfortunately, these abilities cannot be measured in a standardized multiple-choice examination, which in this case, actually poses more of an obstacle.
Bad Genius is a movie that makes the mundane almost magical in its clever execution of crime caper tropes, and never loses its heart and culture. Though the setup is a bit slow, once the cheating begins, you’ll only be have a few moments in between to take a breather, and then you’ll be gripping your seat until it’s over.