Lynn (Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying) is a gifted Thai high school student who scores an exclusive scholarship to study at an elite senior academy. Despite struggling to fit in with her rich and privileged peers she does strike up a friendship with Grace (Eisaya Hosuwan), an aspiring drama student with terrible grades. After Lynn helps Grace cheat in an exam, Grace’s boyfriend Pat (Teeradon Supapunpinyo) offers to pay Lynn hundreds of thousands of baht to help an entire group of students do the same.
Bad Genius is a hugely effective heist film that masquerades as a teen drama. Its lead characters are all seventeen-year-olds in their final year of high school, but their scheme – a combination of get-rich-quick scam and an attempt to score a coveted American college offer – plays out in just as dramatic and tense a manner as any adult equivalent. Thanks to charismatic lead performances and some very effective visual direction, it has become an unexpected international hit. That success is well-deserved.
Chuengcharoensukying, making her acting debut here, is excellent as the bottled-up, studious Lynn. Thaneth Warakulnukroh is also very strong as Lynn’s dutiful and awkward father. Bad Genius marks Warakulnukroh’s return to Thai screens after a 30 year-break, and he takes what could easily be a stock authoritarian father and transforms him into a well-rounded, multi-faceted man. He is clearly out of his depth as a solo parent, and the realistic scenes between him and his daughter typify the sort of extra mile to which director Nattawut Poonpiriya has gone to flesh out and advance the film.
When the various examination scams kick in, the film is shot and edited with a sharp and dynamic style straight out of the Danny Boyle playbook. There is a crispness and a rising tension to these scenes that make them very engaging. The film as a whole is a little overlong, however, and its structure could have easily been tightened a little to shave a good 10-15 minutes from its length. While it does not outstay its welcome, it does threaten it from time to time.
Ultimately the real achievement of Bad Genius is that it is not about exam cheating at all, but class. Lynn and her classmate Bank (Chanon Santinatornkul), who are comparatively poor but smart, get sucked into the examinations scam by Grace and Pat, who are immensely rich but too lazy to study. As the film progresses it becomes increasingly clear that the labour of one group is being used to prop up the status of the other; as it is in the classroom, so it is in Thailand more broadly. The film even finds time to take a few relatively savage pot-shots at the private school system and its methods of fleecing socially aspiring parents dry.
It is unusual for a Thai film to receive as wide an international release as Bad Genius received, and when it does that is usually a good indication that the film is worth your time. Bad Genius is not just a definite cut above the usual teen fare, it is one of the best thrillers of its year.
This review was originally published at FilmInk. For Australian readers, Bad Genius is currently available to stream at SBS Online.