Cory Finley’s 2017 debut feature Thoroughbreds was a strikingly original vision from the playwright-turned-filmmaker, but for his follow-up, Finley steps back a bit, working from someone else’s screenplay adapting a magazine article about real-life events. Bad Education is clever and funny and very well-acted, but it’s not the kind of bold artistic statement that puts a director on the map. Following its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, Bad Education was picked up by HBO (where it debuts this week), and it fits in well with the cable/streaming outlet’s many true-crime dramas.
Just because it’s less distinctive doesn’t mean that Bad Education isn’t entertaining, though. It’s an effective take on an outrageous news story, using the stranger-than-fiction details to make some smart points about good intentions gone awry. The title carries a bit of irony, since the students in the wealthy Roslyn School District on Long Island, New York, seem to be getting very good educations, thanks largely to the substantial financial resources gathered by the district’s superintendent, Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman). Frank is an enormously popular local figure who’s led Roslyn to become the fourth-ranked public-school district in the entire United States.
Frank may wear fancy suits and indulge in a little nip and tuck to keep his face looking fresh, but he genuinely cares about every student in the district, taking time to learn personal details about all of the parents and kids who come through his office. Jackman plays Frank with a mix of confidence and vulnerability that shows how inextricably linked his sense of self-worth is to the success of the district, and that makes it both surprising and obvious when an investigation led by the high school’s own newspaper reveals that Frank has been embezzling funds for years.
Frank is so earnestly invested in the success of every student that he encourages budding student journalist Rachel Bhargava (Geraldine Viswanathan) to dig deeper on her story about an expensive new campus improvement, inadvertently leading to his own downfall. That bit of dramatic irony may not be entirely true to life, but it makes for sharp, insightful storytelling, and Finley deftly balances the serious with the absurd in unfolding the scandal onscreen. There’s a sly sense of humor to both Mike Makowsky’s script and Finley’s direction that keeps the movie from feeling like a dry news report or a judgmental lecture.
At first, Frank isn’t even the main target of the fraud investigation. Before he goes down, he’s preceded by the district’s business manager, Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney), who is far less careful about hiding the personal excesses that she pays for with the money she’s stolen. While Frank is desperate to hold onto his position and positive reputation for the good of the students, Pam is more willing to burn it all down, and Janney plays the character with the same ferociousness she brought to her Oscar-winning role in I, Tonya.
As the scheme starts to fall apart and the authorities close in, Bad Education becomes more of a familiar true-crime story, but the filmmakers never lose sight of the humanity behind the crimes. It probably helps that Makowsky himself attended Roslyn schools (he was in middle school when the scandal broke in 2002) and has a keen understanding of the area and the people who live there. Finley knows when to step back and let the writing shine, and he knows when to add a little flair, especially in some dreamlike sequences that express Frank’s hopes and insecurities. The real people and their real schemes are fascinating enough that Bad Education doesn’t need to try hard to dazzle the audience.