Monday, June 26, 2017

NYAFF ’17: Bad Genius

As cheating scandals go, this one deserves credit for ambition. Unlike the rather pathetic Atlanta Pubic School scandal (involving teachers trying to cover up their sub-par performance), these Thai kids plan to make several million Baht and secure their futures by studying abroad. Lynn will be the brains of their operation and perhaps their conscience too in Nattawut Poonpiriya’s Bad Genius (trailer here), the opening film of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Lynn is a cute genius, but her father is a scrupulously honest school teacher and her mother pulled a disappearing act. Consequently, they do not have a lot of money, but her academic achievement earns her a full scholarship to a tony prep school. However, this is the sort of place where the incidentals can really add up. To cover those costs, she develops a method to signal multiple choice answers to her “tutoring” customers. It started with her pretty but ditzy new friend Grace, but it really starts to reach economies of scale when her well-heeled boyfriend Pat and his cronies get in on the deal.

Rather awkwardly, Bank, the school’s other, less socially skilled scholarship student blunderingly reveals the scam. Despite getting burned, the reluctant Lynn is convinced to take her game to the next level, targeting the STIC, the standardized test required for studying abroad in American universities. To pull it off, she will have to travel to Australia, the first time zone in which the test is administered—and she will also need Bank’s brain.

Bad Genius is a nifty caper film, employing elements that are cinematically fresh, but easy for viewers to relate to. Yet, it is also a surprisingly substantial examination of teen social peer pressure and societal corruption in general. The third act is totally serious, but ultimately quite richly satisfying in an unexpected way.

Of course, it is hard to overstate how terrific Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying is as Lynn. She is deservedly this year’s recipient of NYAFF’s Screen International Rising Star Award and in a more just world, you would start seeing her name lit up on extra-wide marquees. She is a fierce but fragile heroic anti-heroine like we’ve really never seen before. Likewise, Chanon Santinatornkul takes Bank on a dramatic but completely believable development arc. Eisaya Hosuwan is shockingly poignant as the popular but insecure Grace. Yet, it is Thaneth Warakulnukroh (who can be seen in Pop Aye, currently in theatrical release), who truly anchors the film and provides its moral polestar as Lynn’s decent plugger father.

Bad Genius clocks in at one-hundred thirty minutes, but it feels like Poonpiriya races us through it at record speed. It is tense, pacey, and wicked smart, featuring a ridiculously photogenic young ensemble, plotting and sneaking around like mad. Highly recommended for fans of capers or high school movies, Bad Genius kicks off the 2017 New York Asian Film Festival this Friday (6/30), at the Walter Reade.