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Bad Genius
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by Jay Seaver

"Genius? Kind of. Bad? Definitely not!"
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2017 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "Bad Genius" is going to make a fun double feature with "Brick" at some point in the not-too-distant future. It's a little less obviously eccentric in translating the heist movie to high school than Rian Johnson's film noir was, but it's still kind of brilliant for recognizing that its true story was a caper at heart and going for it.

Rinrada "Lynn" Nilthep (Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying) is not the usual crime-movie anti-heroine, after all; she's introduced as a mousy high-school freshman with excellent grades who worries that her father VIt (Thaneth Warakulnukroh) can't really afford to put her in the sort of expensive private school that would serve as a stepping stone to college abroad. That reticence disappears when she's offered a scholarship and free lunches besides, and she's quickly befriended by Grace (Eisaya Hosuwan), not nearly so smart but gregarious and part of all the cool extracurriculars. It's helping Grace keep her grades up high enough to perform in the school play where Lynn first contrives to slip her friend the answers, and soon it's not just Grace, but her rich boyfriend Pat (Teeradon Supapunpinyo) and his friends that are looking for help from "Mentor Lynn". The school's other scholarship student, "Bank" Thanathon (Chanon Santinatornkul) wants no part in any sort of scam like this, but they will eventually need his help senior year if Pat and Grace are going to pass the Standard Test for International Colleges ("STIC") and go to school in Boston as planned.

This could easily have been a traditional story of a good girl caught up in peer pressure, but instead it recognizes Lynn for the criminal mastermind that she is and lets the audience have a blast as she plans and improvises ways to pass the answers to her school's standardized tests, and Chuengcharoensukying does great work in making Lynn somewhat detached without being icy. Though it's never stated, one gets the idea that studying has always been easy for her and pulling this sort of real-world operation off in the moment is the first real challenge she's ever had, and that she seems to relish it even though she seldom breaks a smile. Lynn is kind of a challenging protagonist - she's detached and analytical from the start, so it's impressive that Chuengcharoensukying manages to get the audience with her well before she's in any sort of real danger.

Part of that is the people around her; Thaneth Warakulnukroh gets across that it's more important to Vit that Lynn is a good person than that she's successful, and makes it clear in their scenes together that they are close enough that he's not being oblivious. Eisaya Hosuwan, meanwhile, plays Grace with a charming openness - she's kind of shallow and not academically inclined at all, but she genuinely likes Lynn and can draw her out. Chanon Santinatornkul probably gets the strongest arc as Bank, getting this defensive kid to the point where he realizes the power he can wield when given the chance.

As much as director Nattawut Poonpiriya and the co-writers give their youthful cast good characterizations to work with, it's the cheating schemes which tend to bring the movie to life - they're little robberies, although as in many classic crime movies, the characters are able to mouth reasoning about how they're stealing from a system that has stolen far more within the law that at least gives the audience something to chew on. The first one is a tiny delight using just a shoe and an eraser, and the continent-spanning climax is one of the best examples of expanding these things far bigger than seems likely, and it manages to make how it's stretched out work by really putting Lynn through the wringer in a way she hadn't been before.

The film is clever around that, too, starting from a better-than-usual fake-out where the opening flash-forward is concerned, and then continuing with little flights of fancy that in no way undercut the times when precision is important. Poonpiriya and cinematographer Phaklao Jiraungkoonkun use a recurring bit where Lynn is reflected in multiple mirrors to imply multiple sides to who she is, with one doing an exceptional job of placing everything so that those angles don't just look like the same ones repeated. It's also great that the film remembers that these are kids doing surprisingly well-executed but kind of dumb things because they aren't really capable of looking far enough ahead to see that cheating off of Lynn isn't a viable long-term plan. They're clever, but seldom truly jaded or cynical.

That's not the usual mood for a crime movie, and that's what makes this one such a neat surprise. The intersection between teen hijinks and this sort of caper is smaller than any in the Venn Diagrams on the tests the characters take, so it's exciting to find something this good there.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=31413&reviewer=371
originally posted: 07/22/17 11:43:29
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 New York Asian Film Festival For more in the 2017 New York Asian Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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