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cast: Jeff Daniels, Jena Malone, and Paul Sorvino

director: John Stockwell

102 mins (15) 1999
HBO / High Fliers VHS rental

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Donald Morefield
This HBO TV-movie is based on the true story of a poor school's attempts to win a US scholastic competition called the Academic Decathlon. This exam/quiz/oral event is regularly won by a group of irritating middle-class swots from a properly funded school, so from the off we're obviously intended to root for the underdogs. After placing in the Chicago locals, the kids from inner city Steinmetz steal a copy of the questions for the statewide tests and, after much soul-searching by their teacher-coach, they all conspire to cheat and defeat the long reigning champions (cue the theme music from Rocky - yes, really!). That's not the whole story here, though; it's what happens next that is truly important. Can the boys and girls of Steinmetz keep their secret? What will the education board do if they find out? Should personal wealth and social standing determine the quality of US schooling and the fortunes of its young people?
   There's an established formula for movies like this about high school. From Carl Reiner's comedic Summer School, to the excellent serious drama of Stand And Deliver (which the Steinmetz team watch on TV at one point): a bunch of underprivileged students rise to the challenge of teenage education and beat the system against overwhelming odds. The characters of individual students are studied as much if not more than the lessons themselves, and Cheaters boasts a good cross-section of types: babysitter, lard-arse, comics-reading nerd, teacher's pet, wannabe gangster, rebel without a pause, etc.
   Jena Malone (who played the young Ellie in Contact), as brightest student and leader of the Steinmetz team, is very talented and a name to watch out for. Paul Sorvino gives a solid performance as the headmaster clearly hoping for the best yet expecting the worst. However, Cheaters is Jeff Daniels' show, all the way. As Steinmetz' lonely teacher, he's inspiring and dedicated, and wrestles convincingly with the various ethical and moral considerations - before lamely rationalising his actions as those of any other flawed human being. He prefers to see Cheaters' media-blitzed incident as a form of civil disobedience, and in the context of this film, at least, there is the strongly appealing factor of losers railing at the unfairly advantaged. The director, John Stockwell, previously made Breast Men, but I remember him as a creditable actor in films such as John Carpenter's Christine. This film would be a fine addition to any filmmakers CV.

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