Bad Education (4 stars)

Bad Education

LFF 2019: Cory Finley's stranger than fiction tale stars a superb Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney

Fully subscribing to the notion that truth is often stranger – and more compelling – than fiction, Bad Education takes a knowing dive into the scandal which played out in New York's Roslyn school district in 2002, during which senior administrators were found guilty of embezzling millions of dollars of public money. Featuring knock-out central performances from Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney, this second feature from Cory Finley, director of the exceptional, equally-as-knotty Thoroughbreds, confirms him as a talent to watch.

From the moment we meet him, strutting onto the stage at a school event, it's clear that Long Island district superintendent Frank Tassone (Jackman) is a proud, confident and popular man. Impeccably dressed, with not a hair out of place, he resembles a politician more than an educator. Indeed, that's a fair comparison: Frank regularly uses his gifts of persuasion and his golden smile to get things done.

When it transpires that business administrator – and Frank's right-hand woman – Pam Gluckin (Janney) has been stealing school money, a devastated Frank is determined to protect the district's standing and reputation. Yet, as the details are slowly, beautifully teased out by the whip-smart screenplay from Mike Makowsky (I Think We're Alone Now), himself a former student of Roslyn High School, Frank has his own reasons to bury the truth.

If Bad Education often leans into the surreal humour of the situation – Frank's attempted shakedown of school paper journalist Rachel (the excellent Geraldine Viswanathan, from Blockers), whose investigation plots the course of the narrative, is a case in point – Finley has taken the expert decision to play this sensational story fairly straight. There are no flashy visuals or narrative theatrics a la The Wolf of Wall Street or The Big Short. Instead, a clear focus on the individuals at the heart of the story explores not only their appalling actions but also the very human (and strangely relatable) ways in which they attempt to rationalise or explain them.

Indeed, while stellar production design keeps us firmly rooted in the early noughties' world of flip phones and CD players, parallels with the morality issues that are currently plaguing everything from politics to culture give Bad Education a resonance and reach far beyond its Long Island setting. It's a superb piece of storytelling.

Screening on Mon 7, Tue 8 and Wed 9 Oct as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2019. General release TBC.

Bad Education

  • 4 stars
  • 2019
  • US
  • 1h 43min
  • Directed by: Cory Finley
  • Cast: Hugh Jackman, Allison Janney, Geraldine Viswanathan
  • UK release: 7 October 2019

Frank Tassone (Jackman) is a Long Island school superintendent who finds out that his right-hand woman Pam (Janney) has been stealing school money—but Frank has his own secrets. A superb piece of (true) storytelling, with knock-out performances from Jackman, Janney and Viswanathan as school paper journalist Rachel…