Roslyn High School is ranked 4th in the Nassau School District. Their students attend Yale, Harvard, Dartmouth, etc. With one more push they can be #1. Their success stems from the astute maneuvering and guidance of the suavely dressed Superintendent Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman). The board implicitly trusts him, and he reigns supreme with the adoration of his students. However, several startling secrets lay at the foundation of his fiefdom. Cory Finley follows-up his 2017 dark comedy Thoroughbreds with the shocking dramedy Bad Education — mixing scandal and a cult of personality.
The frame of Finely’s film should prove familiar, based upon the Nassau County school scandal, administrators were convicted of embezzling money from the district. Tassone runs Rosyln High School with Assistant Superintendent Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney), and pre-scandal they’re focused on an upcoming construction project called the Skywalk—a literally bridge of hope to becoming the number one school in the district. Their methods are intense; Gluckin routinely quizzes Tassone on the names of students and teachers: their daily wishes, achievements by their relatives, and other successes in their lives. People feel as though Tassone is their friend. However, when Rachel Bhargava (Geraldine Viswanathan) is assigned by the school paper to write a puff piece on the Skywalk she uncovers disturbing details hidden beneath the numbers.
Bad Education acts as a vehicle for Hugh Jackman—delivering an incredible performance as the well-kept Tassone. The character isn’t too far from his previous role as Gary Hart in The Front Runner: An attractive and persuasive personality with an equal capacity for perfection and unforced errors, preying and turning on those who question his ‘immaculate” record. And just like Hart, Tassone possesses a few secrets too. Furthermore, the acting from the rest of the cast is strong: Janney’s incredulous eye-rolls is a mood, Ray Romano as the agitated Bob Spicer does fine work, as does Rafael Casal who carves out singular moments in his few minutes.
Finley’s dramedy—driven by character ticks—courses with dry humor, yet offers fully realized humans. These aren’t people with bad intentions. They’re people who became greedy, then comfortable, then invincible. Moreover, the film is a test of one’s individual scruples. While tracing through the scandal, Finley’s narrative becomes an examination of whistle-blower culture and the psychology behind exposing nefarious behavior. Who does the truth ultimately hurt? And can doing the right thing still lead to bad things for good people? Bad Education doesn’t completely shift to a crucible, nevertheless, still asks challenging questions relating to the salaries of educators and administrators, why a school’s success being directly tied to donors is a detriment, and what sacrifices and ends must come to get children into their top school at any level. Bad Education is a step-up in every facet for Finely, and an original telling of inherently flawed people pushed to the brink.