A slick, heartfelt, and highly entertaining riff on ‘Ocean’s 11.’
Lynn (Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying) is a scholarship kid and as smart as they come, but that doesn’t mean she’s immune from making some dumb decisions. When her best friend, Grace (Eisaya Hosuwan), asks for some help on an exam the dishonest act of kindness catches the eye of other students in need. Soon Lynn is cheating for an increasing number of wealthy classmates — in exchange for some substantial cash payments — and she justifies it as a way of helping her working-class dad. Their schemes grow in complexity and culpability leading up to an exam with international ramifications.
Bad Genius is a sharply directed and edited look at the high cost of cheating, and while its action is far removed from life and death situations the film delivers some tense and highly suspenseful sequences. More than that though, the film finds the heart in young Lynn’s situation and moves deftly between the expected narrative beats to leave viewers truly caring about her fate.
Director/co-writer Nattawut Poonpiriya crafts what amounts to a heist movie of sorts — the big finale features the team having to get answers out of a secure location to students waiting thousands of miles away — and it leads to some nail-biting moments. Hollywood has tackled the subject previously in films like Cheaters and The Perfect Score, but while all three are inspired by true events it’s Poonpiriya’s film that gives the real-life tale a slick, rapid-fire sheen through both its editing and cinematography.
The film looks good, but just as important is the script keeps the motivation grounded even as the story goes high tech and leaves Thailand for international locales. There’s a progression to the increasingly elaborate cheating plans, and while the first — finger movements emulating certain classical piano pieces — is the most visually appealing and artful, the stakes increase dramatically by the end. Through it all Lynn convinces herself it’s for the greater good as she helps her father by pretending to be teaching piano lessons and her friends get to graduate, satisfy their parents, and move on to the universities of their choice.
It has fun with the process, but the film doesn’t glorify their efforts. Instead we’re watching a morality play of sorts as varied characters enter the fray, and only some make it through to the other side. Lynn is our lead, but while we’re set up at first to be affected by her plight at what point do recognize she’s gone to far? A fellow student, and fellow genius, Bank’s (Chanon Santinatornkul) plight is even more tenuous as his hand is forced. And while Grace and her spoiled boyfriend Pat (Teeradon Supapunpinyo) don’t earn our sympathy there’s a recognizably reckless ambition to their characters.
The cast is uniformly strong, but it’s Chuengcharoensukying who immediately takes hold as the one we’re rooting to succeed even knowing that what she’s doing is wrong. Lynn’s thinking too much about others and not nearly enough about her own present and future, and Chuengcharoensukying’s performance has us wishing this cautionary tale would go where it shouldn’t.
Bad Genius is a slick yet endearing look at students behaving badly, and there’s something to be learned from that combination.
[Editor’s note: Our review of Bad Genius originally ran during NYAFF 2017.]