For today’s entry in the 44 Days of Paranoia, I want to take a quick look at a very good movie from the year 2000 that not many seem to know about, Cheaters.
During my senior year of high school, I always wore a short skirt on any day that I had a test in my algebra class.
Because I was a cheater.
Back when I was still a student, I always struggled when it came to my math classes. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do the work as much as it was that the work just bored me. Whenever my teacher was talking about square roots and x+y and all the rest, I was usually busy daydreaming about anything other than what I was supposed to be learning.
Fortunately, my sister Erin had been one year ahead of me in high school and had saved all of her old tests and quizzes. Since we both had the same algebra teacher, I started using her old tests as a study guide. It quickly became obvious that our teacher was simply reusing the same tests from year-to-year. While the order of the problems might occasionally change, the solutions remained the same.
Every test day, I would wear a skirt and, right before class, I would write the answers on my thigh. If the teacher walked by my desk while I was taking the test, I would just pull down on my skirt. Fortunately, the teacher was a male so even if he did suspect that I was cheating, it’s not like he could tell me to lift up my skirt or, for that matter, even get caught trying to look down at my legs.
And that’s how I managed to pass algebra without ever paying attention to anything that was said in class. I know that I should probably feel guilty about cheating but, to be honest, I don’t. If I had it to do all over again, I would do the exact same thing.
Perhaps that’s why I related to the character of Jolie Fitch in Cheaters.
Jolie (played by Jena Malone) is a junior at Chicago’s Steinmetz High. Jolie is one of the only students at Steinmetz to be more interested in academics than athletics. She also idolizes English teacher Jerry Plecki (Jeff Daniels). When Steinmetz’s buffoonish principal (Paul Sorvino) forces Jerry to take the unwanted job of coaching the school’s Academic Decathlon team, Jolie volunteers to help Plecki recruit an unlikely team of misfits and outsiders.
At the regional competition, the Steinmetz team just barely qualifies to move onto the state competition. However, no one on the team feels that they have a shot at beating the team from the far wealthier Whitney Young Magnet High School. As quickly becomes obvious, Whitney Young specifically goes out of their way to recruit the smartest students they can find and, as a result, they have won the state competition for five years straight.
Angered over the smugly elitist attitude of Whitney Young’s coach, Plecki obsessively pushes his team to study and prepare. However, with the state competition quickly approaching, the Steinmetz Team comes into possession of a copy of the test for the state finals. Obsessed with defeating Whitney Young, Plecki suggests that the students cheat. After being pressured by both Plecki and Jolie, the rest of the team agrees to do so.
When Steinmetz subsequently wins state, the Whitney Young coach immediately demands an investigation into how Steinmetz could have possibly made such a dramatic improvement in just the period of a few months.
However, the rest of Chicago is charmed by the story of how the Steinmetz team came out of nowhere to win and Plecki and his students become celebrities. However, when one spiteful student threatens to reveal the secret, both Plecki and his team are forced to scramble to cover up their cheating and prevent the truth from being exposed.
Cheaters is based on a true story, though I can’t tell you for sure how closely the filmmakers stuck to the facts of the case. (If you look at the film’s imdb page, you’ll find a lot of negative comments left by a lot of angry students from Whitney Young). However, what I can say is that Cheaters felt true. By that, I mean that Cheaters captured both the importance of competition in high school and the fact that, when you’re a teenager, everything is a drama and, as a result, it’s a lot easier to justify things that, as an adult, you would refuse to ever consider.
When I was high school, I was involved with both the Drama Club and Speech and Debate and watching Cheaters brought back a lot of memories. Cheaters gets all of the small details right — everything from the combination of exhaustion and exhilaration that comes from competing at an all-day tournament to the awkward attempts of “mature” adults to understand why winning is so important when you’re in high school.
Cheaters is also blessed with some excellent performances. As Whitney Young’s smug coach, Robert Joy is properly loathsome. Paul Sorvino brings some much-needed comic relief to the film and the scene where he awkwardly dances to the theme from Rocky is priceless.
The film, however, is truly dominated by Jena Malone and Jeff Daniels. As the film’s nominal protagonists, Malone and Daniels both give wonderfully nuanced performances. When the film starts, you find yourself rooting for both of them because not only are they likable performers but their characters seem so sincere in their desire to win. However, as the film progresses, we start to see the small chinks in their armor. We see how obsessed Jolie is with protecting Plecki. Meanwhile, Plecki goes from being an almost idealized teacher to being something of a megalomaniac. By the end of the film, we realize that we know far less about Jerry Plecki then we thought we did. Jeff Daniels gives a performance that forces us to draw our own conclusions about Plecki and his motivations.
Some people might question reviewing a film like Cheaters in a series about conspiracy-themed films. However, though it may not be as obvious as with a film like Three Days Of The Condor or JFK, Cheaters is a conspiracy film. Beyond the conspiracy to win the Academic Decathlon by cheating, Cheaters is about the much more subtle conspiracy that will always cause students who go to schools like Steinmetz to be viewed as being less important than the students at a school like Whitney Young. Cheaters is a film about a conspiracy, the conspiracy of cultural and economic elitism.
It’s a conspiracy that, Cheaters suggests, leaves many people with only two options: surrender or cheat.
Other entries in the 44 Days Of Paranoia: