Monday, May 18, 2020

Cooking the Books: BAD EDUCATION

Bad Education is set in schools, but concerns no actual classes, and certainly not any dynamics of students and teachers. It doesn’t tell us about curriculum or class sizes or demographics or unions — but it does crow that the schools at its center, a well-funded Long Island district, have a growing reputation for sending kids on to prestigious colleges. It’s a fact that causes local real estate to steadily grow, and to attract the sort of high-earning parents looking to keep their offspring on cushioned, easy paths to privilege. That we don’t know any details about the schools’ actual contents beyond that seems to be part of the point. Director Cory Finley, whose chilled observational eye was attuned to a dead-eyed emotional violence of bored rich girls of suburbia in his accomplished debut feature, the creepy domestic drama Thoroughbreds, now turns his attention to a house of cards built out of criss-crossing pressures on school administrators. He finds there, in this based-on-a-true-crime picture, a cauldron of false appearances that brew up the opportunity for massive embezzlement. Finley keeps the film’s style cool and collected, staging unassumingly and clearly scenes that take in squirming unease as officials get suspicious, the frazzling of authorities as they’re implicated, and the icy office power plays as various administrators makes moves to preserve their own prestige and influence. He’s out to show how so much of a whole town’s educational and economic interest can be built out of not looking too closely at the details when the big picture appears rosy.

It’s a film full of people projecting an idea of themselves into the world, desperately trying to hide the shallowness and sneakiness beneath. Yet it starts with one of the uncomplicatedly good characters: a reporter for a high school newspaper (Geraldine Viswanathan), tasked with an article about impending construction, who starts poking around in the finances of a new capital outlay project. Something doesn’t add up. Then the ne’er-do-well son of the district’s assistant superintendent (Allison Janney) gets caught using a school credit card around town. There’s scandal brewing, and the charming, hollow superintendent (Hugh Jackman) finds his unflappable local celebrity calm breaking a sweat as he tries to keep it secret, minimize the damage, and keep up appearances of success as it all threatens to fall apart. He’s a man of secrets — a closeted gay man, yes, and also carrying on an affair with a former student, and sneaking off for cosmetic procedures — who has intermingled his reputation with that of his schools. He likes looking like an important man, a big grin and slicked back hair matching his easy superficial charm. We see him quizzing himself on teacher’s names and positions so he can slide through a faculty mixer with chummy ease. He works hard to keep up the looks of a man on top of the world. Jackman plays the razzle-dazzle well, and cuts it with a hunger and a sadness. He’s a desperate man, even before scandal erupts. Maybe he really wants to help students; there’s a real note of melancholy when he admits to sometimes missing being in the classroom. But he’s consumed with keeping his secrets, and so too, in its own way, is the community. Finley’s movie is a narrow character study, tunnel-visioned into the tick-tock details of how some well-regarded community leaders lose their reputation because that was all they had. The movie is poignantly sympathetic to the damage they caused themselves with their sociopathy, and subtextually troubled by the ways that psychological problem is aided and abetted by similar surface-level impulses that can be the only thing holding a community together.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Bookish: NORMAL PEOPLE

The trick of Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People, the buzzy, intimate coming-of-age sort-of-romance published last year, is that it’s closely observed, but incredibly narrow. We are treated to scene after scene in which the interest is entirely in the gestures described, the subtle give and take of awkward adolescent power plays, the earnestness with which its characters trick themselves into and out of interpersonal relationships while chasing an elusive something that’ll take them to the rest of their lives. The point, in other words, is in the subterranean emotional development conjured by Rooney’s descriptions, and not so much the story itself which starts at a place of pro-forma young adult relationship — he’s lower class popular; she’s more well-off but an outcast; they’re drawn together and yet mutually agree to keep it a secret, sometimes — and is then dressed up in artful elision, skipping weeks or months at a time, with Rooney describing mostly intimate bedroom moments, or polite chatter at dreary high school and college parties. How normal, indeed. It was also a bit stifling for this reader, for as well drawn as these normal moments are, and how deeply the author knows her characters’ minds, that’s about as far as the book imagines. It has texture, but no space. Therefore the interest is not in what they do, but in how they feel about it. We’re in their heads.

This presents a problem for directors Lenny Abrahamson (Room) and Hettie Macdonald (of British theater and television), and a team of writers including Rooney herself, in turning the novel into a miniseries. When stripped of interiority, the plot is incredibly mundane, and when each scene is dutifully staged with naturalistic performances from fine young leads (relative unknowns Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal), the whole thing goes vacant. Without imagining how to present the minds of these characters cinematically other than the occasional cross-cut flashbacks, we’re left with scenes of those boring parties and molasses-paced exchanges. The bigger ensemble scenes play out on occasion with what suddenly sounds like boring teen soap dialogue, the college scenes are built out of English major Mad Libs, and yet the pillow talk between the leads is soft and stumbling, more raw than the poorly imagined setups to their grinding payoffs. But no matter how committed to the naked emotionality of these young people the performers are, the filmmakers aren’t interested in framing more than a two shot, or tight close-ups in shot/reverse shot conversations between flatly lensed establishing shots. The whole thing — six slow hours over the course of twelve thirty-minute episodes; long for a movie, short for television, in another one of these intermediary neither-here-nor-there slogs — is inert. The leads are stranded in the dishwater dull visual style, stretching to communicate the unspoken in ways the writing and production can’t complement.