Nattawut Poonpiriya’s Bad Genius makes its unpromising subject matter into a sleek, pacy, and often nerve-wrackingly tense heist film. It has everything you could possibly want from its genre, from rapid-fire improvisation to clever and inventive planning to moral qualms to major interpersonal fallout. At one point it throws in an authority figure who pursues one of the protagonists with Terminator-like relentlessness. And it’s all based around stealing test answers–first passing a friend the answers to a multiple-choice test, then devising a system for simultaneously but unobtrusively communicating the answers to multiple people in the classroom, and finally cheating on the STIC, a high-profile international exam for students applying to English-language universities.
Part of the film’s (good) genius is that academic stress is relatively common: the familiarity of watching people scribble in ABCD bubbles makes the idea of getting caught all the more agonizing. But mostly, this is just a ridiculously well-crafted movie that’s having a great time, and its young actors–especially lead Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying–have tons of presence. There’s a strong sense of play to both the structure and the execution, but the film (unlike its characters) never cheats to raise the stakes. It keeps its teenage characters–wealthy and otherwise–believable, with their own concerns, mistakes, and decisions.
It’s hard to talk about the film in detail without giving away some of its major pleasures, like how their paying customers are supposed to smuggle the test answers in when they take their exams or what happens when the pressure really starts building at the STIC testing site. Let’s just say that this is an incredibly entertaining movie that is a great reminder that CGI-free blockbusters haven’t completely left us.