Monday, November 07, 2011

Cheaters (TV film)

Written and directed by John Stockwell, Cheaters is about a working-class high school teacher from Chicago who rallies his students to cheat against a top-city school in an academic decathlon. Based on the real-life events of 1994-1995 decathlon scandal in Chicago, the film is an exploration of what a school teacher and his students try to do for their school. Starring Jeff Daniels, Jena Malone, Blake Heron, Luke Edwards, Dov Tiefenbach, and Paul Sorvino. Cheaters is a smart yet compelling drama from John Stockwell.

Dr. Jerry Plecki (Jeff Daniels) of Steinmetz High School is set to lead the decathlon team for the third year in a row. Yet, many of the students coming from the working class area of Chicago doesn’t seem to care with the exception of the 15-year old junior Jolie Fitch (Jena Malone). Fitch helps Plecki assemble a decathlon team that includes math wiz Darius (Luke Edwards), Matt (Blake Heron), Paul (Dan Warry-Smith), two young Polish kids in Dominik (Dominik Podbielski) and Agnieska (Anna Raj), and a wild-card named Irwin Flickas (Dov Tiefenbach). After a few hard months of studying and hard work, they attend the regional decathlon competition. Despite making it to state at fifth place, they were beaten big by the already successful Whitney Young school that has won the decathlon for nine years straight.

With the realities of their environment as well as the fact that they’ll never beat Whitney Young, the students and Plecki realize that all of their hard work isn’t enough. When a friend of Matt’s was able to get him inside a building where a copy of the upcoming tests are, Matt is able to secure a copy of the tests only to have Irwin take it so he can show it to Plecki. Though Plecki is aware that what he’s doing is wrong, he reveals to his team that he has a copy. While a few reluctantly decide to take part in the plot to cheat, Plecki decides to have the already demoted Irwin to play the role as a spy for the upcoming state decathlon. With Plecki and his team taking on a plan to cheat without getting caught, their plan succeeds as they pull an upset over Whitney Young.

While the victory has caused a great sense of pride for Steinmetz High and its principal Constantine Kiamos (Paul Sorvino), a lot of press attention goes to the school as Irwin feels left out. After writing an essay about cheating, Irwin finds himself in trouble with Kiamos as Irwin later claims it was just fiction. Yet, it would be the first of many problems Plecki and his students would face as the school board accuses them of cheating. With the whole team and Plecki deciding not to return their prizes and claim that they did nothing wrong, a scandal starts to escalate as Plecki becomes the main target of everything that has happened.

The TV movie is about a cheating scandal that rocked an entire state but it is more about why did a teacher and a group of kids did what they did? Well, it wasn’t the fact they did it simply to beat some elite high school in the city or to bring pride to the school. Did they do it to expose an already corrupt system where richer schools get more and inner-city public schools to get less? John Stockwell goes into that but he chooses to focus more on the people involved in this real-life cheating scandal.

While the script at times does reach into some heavy-handed idea of moralization about what immigrants and working-class people had to do to get ahead in the third act. John Stockwell does at least make Dr. Plecki and his students into very interesting personalities as they all try to work hard to succeed despite what they have to face. Dr. Plecki knows that cheating is wrong but knowing that his students have worked too hard and make the kind of sacrifices to succeed wouldn’t be enough to beat some elite school. With cheating, he hopes to give these young kids the chance to succeed and feel proud that he’s made some difference.

Yet, he manages to get in trouble with the system while one kid, who was part of the team, feels left out as he gets revenge by writing an essay and expose the story to the press. For those kids, they’re faced into an unwanted situation where they‘re pressured to expose themselves for the gain of an unfair school system. Plecki however, becomes vilified to the point as he ponders about everything he had done.

Stockwell’s direction is very good for the way he presents the film. While the direction is mostly straightforward with some stylized compositions. It does play to the energy of the film of how hard the kids are studying through a series of speedy montages or slow it down a bit for slow-motion walking. By basing the film on location in the Chicago area, Stockwell does manage to maintain a sense of realism in the film while he knows how to frame the camera given that he’s shooting it on full frame. Overall, Stockwell does create a very solid yet engaging TV-movie that explores the world of cheating.

Cinematographer David Hennings does a nice job with the photography to maintain a gritty though polished look for a lot of the exteriors to emphasize the coldness of the Chicago working-class area along with some excellent interior shots for some of the nighttime scenes. Editors Eric A. Sears and Scott K. Wallace do some amazing work with the editing by creating some wonderful montages as well as slowing things down for stylistic scenes as the pacing is presented in a leisured form.

Production designer Craig Lathrop, with set decorator Steven Essam and art director Edward Bonutto, does a fine job with the set pieces created such as Plecki‘s classroom and the homes he and the kids live in. Costume designer Lisa Martin does a very good job with costumes for Plecki and the students to emphasize their working-class world and their more elitist opponents. Sound editor Leonard Marcel and sound designer D. Chris Smith do some wonderful work with the sound to play up the chaos of the locations or to overlap some of the dialogue for the interrogation scene late in the film.

The film’s score by Paul Haslinger is pretty good for its mix of plaintive, piano-driven score and some low-key electronic pieces to maintain the gritty presentation of the film. Music supervisor P.J. Bloom and Evyen Klean does play to the world of the mid-90s with an array of alternative rock music like Cracker and the Cranberries as well as some electronic music from acts like Portishead.

The casting by Randi Hiller and Diane Kerbel is superb as it features some memorable small appearances from Lenka Peterson as Plecki’s mother, Marcia Bennett as a school board member, and Robert Joy as Whitney Young’s decathlon coach. For the roles of the young kids, there’s wonderful performances from Dominik Podbielski as the quiet Polish kid Dominik, Anna Raj as the hard-working Polish student Agnieska, Dan Warry-Smith as the fat but fun Paul, Luke Edwards as the witty Darius, and Blake Heron as the brash Matt. Dov Tiefenbach is very good as abrasive yet smart Irwin who would be the kid that causes a lot of trouble leading to his own departure from the team while plotting revenge against his teammates.

Paul Sorvino is excellent as principal Kiamos who hopes for something for his school to be proud of while trying to help Plecki with the onslaught that is going on late in the film. Jena Malone is fantastic as Jolie, a young junior who hopes to get something from the decathlon while being one of the few kids that wants to learn as Malone’s performance is full of excitement and a real sense of determination. Jeff Daniels is great as Dr. Jerry Plecki who is a good teacher that wants the kids to do their best while going into his own personal conflicts about cheating once he’s targeted as he is trying to do what he feels is right for the kids. Daniels’ performance is remarkable for the way he makes Plecki sympathetic without making him as some martyr.

Cheaters is a stellar TV movie by John Stockwell that includes two excellent performances from Jeff Daniels and Jena Malone. While it’s a film that does asks questions about whether cheating is the right thing to do or not depending on one’s environment. It is an engaging film that doesn’t pander to its audience despite being heavy-handed in the third act about morals. Of the films that Stockwell has done as a director, this is his best as it has a gritty element but also presents itself in an accessible manner. In the end, Cheaters is a wonderful yet engrossing drama from John Stockwell.

John Stockwell Films: (Undercover) - (Crazy/Beautiful) - (Blue Crush) - (Into the Blue) - (Turistas) - (Middle of Nowhere)

© thevoid99 2011

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