Dr. Gerald Plecki (Jeff Daniels) is a teacher at Chicago’s Steinmetz High School, where motivated students are rare and motivated teachers even rarer. This is a situation not that uncommon, but things are really bad here. The school is under-funded and the students aren’t performing well. Still, Plecki keeps at it, coaching a small group of students for the state’s academic contest even though the school usually arrives dead last. His superiors resent that situation and it looks as if things don’t brighten up this year, it will be the last. Hence, Dr. Plecki pushes his students even harder than usual, hoping that with enough study and discipline, they can turn things around, even though they’re up against Whitney Young, the ever winning local prep school. The biggest question arise, though, when one of the students steals a copy of the state finals test. What to do now? To cheat or not to cheat?

“Cheaters” is a surprisingly smart and involving film, especially considering that it’s made for TV. Well, it’s HBO original programming, so it isn’t quite regular television. Anyhow, I got quite caught up in this “based on real events” story. At first, you fear that this is just another inner city school drama, as we’re shown metal detectors, cops in hallways, various mayhem in classrooms. Then, having still not gotten over Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled”, I couldn’t help but be appalled at how the school in the film is populated in majority by African-Americans, yet all we see them doing is throw b-balls, be loud, fight and freeload on burritos. All six Steinmetz students to participate in the Academic Decathlon are white! Well, that might be how it happened in real life, so I’ll let it fly.

The first act of the film mostly revolves around “extreme studying”, as the team and their teacher struggle to be ready for the competition. I myself have been a part of an academics team in junior high (we even won the provincial — without cheating!), and I can attest that it’s as silly as it looks. As someone asks in the film, “You mean these dorks take tests for fun?” It’s not even about intelligence, anyways, it’s all short term memory and how much trivial facts you can cram in your head before the big day. This applies to a great deal of school studies, but enough on that.

The film becomes interesting when the kids get a copy of the test and discuss whether to take advantage of it. Of course, conventional wisdom says that cheating is wrong, but how hypocritical is that? As a lawyer says at one point, “How did I get here? By lying and cheating.” How do you think George W. Bush became President? How did Bill Gates crush the competition and became a billionaire? By playing it straight? Please… What “Cheaters” does, in a rather daring fashion, is argue that personal ethics notwithstanding, sometimes in the “real world” it’s more rewarding to round corners. Dr. Plecki’s students are not dimwits, they ARE intelligent, they DO work hard. But they come from the wrong side of town, they can’t study as much they might want to, they have to work at lousy jobs, or to take care of young siblings because their mom can’t afford a babysitter. And here they are faced with the arrogant rich kids of Whitney Young, who have budget, time and expertise to spare. All Dr. Plecki wants to do, really, is help his students get an idea of what if feels like to win, and secure them scholarships and a brighter future…

“Cheaters” was written and directed by John Stockwell (who also wrote “Breast Men” and the upcoming “Rock Star”), who does a very good job at both. His film asks many questions, sets up moral dilemmas and is sure to prompt much discussion. It’s also crafted with a lot of style and energy. The work by director of photography David Hennings is very interesting, shooting the film in “dim” tones, with very textured images which give the film an effectively “urban” look. I’m tempted to compare it to the visual feel of Steven Soderbergh’s “Erin Brockovich”, while linking the film thematically to Alexander Payne’s “Election”. Stockwell isn’t quite on that level, but he’s getting there. Without giving too much away, the teacher and the kids are eventually caught in a media frenzy, and I liked how Stockwell showed the way public opinion is constantly changing, and how ruthless and voracious the media has become, building up underdog heroes only to subsequently destroy them.

The performances are superior throughout, with notably Paul Sorvino as the school principal, and Jeff Daniels as the conflicted teacher. Daniels is an underrated actor, maybe mostly known for his “Dumb & Dumber” role, not too fortunately, as he is a skilled dramatic actor. He communicates a lot without making a fuss. The teenage actors are all compelling, especially Jena Malone, who’s real cute but also very convincing as the sharp-tongued Jolie Fitch. “Cheaters” defies expectations and ends up being both cynical and inspirational.