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TIFF 2019: Bad Education, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Hearts and Bones

It could be an attempt to redeem a profession from charges of fake news or just an easy way to provide an audience surrogate into a story, but there were at least three films at TIFF this year that I saw that included a journalist’s POV. Now, they are very different journalists—an Esquire staffer, a teen at her school’s paper, and an internationally famous photojournalist—but they happen to have one important thing in common: they're all central in films I would recommend.

The best of the three is Cory Finley’s Bad Education,” a refined dramedy that drew comparisons to “Election” after its premiere, but people shouldn’t seek out hoping for big laughs. This is more of a social commentary, about how easily corrupt people can convince themselves they are doing good. We like to delude ourselves into thinking that corruption only comes from truly morally bankrupt people. That's not always the case. Instead of just delivering a by-the-numbers accounting of a true story, Finley has delivered a nuanced film about how nothing is quite as black and white as it seems. Don’t get me wrong—it is in no way a redemption piece for criminals, but it does see them as complex human beings in a way that’s dramatically rewarding.

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“Bad Education” tells a story you may remember: the Nassau County Schools scandal, in which administrators in the Roslyn school district were accused and convicted of embezzling more money from their job than any educator before them. Finley’s film opens before the curtain was lifted as Superintendent Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman) and his Assistant Superintendent Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney) are celebrating another successful year. The students at the school do very well, getting into major colleges, and the financial success of the school has allowed them to break ground on an exciting new construction project called Skywalk. When she’s assigned to do a puff piece on that for the school paper, Rachel Kellog (Geraldine Viswanathan) uncovers a few inconsistencies in the books, and it’s not long before this entire house of cards collapses.

The entire ensemble is incredibly strong, including great supporting work by Rafael Casal, but this film belongs to Jackman, as a man who believes his people are doing the right thing, even when presented with their crimes. And he may not be wrong. What’s the harm if administrators at a prestigious school pocket a little of the money earmarked for education in order to present an image of success? We don’t pay school officials enough money on any level, so if they have to take some donations that would fix a leaky roof in order to buy a new suit in order to woo donors, who loses? One of the most fascinating conversations in “Bad Education” occurs when the scandal first comes to light and before the authorities knew about it and the board has to decide how to handle it. If they make it public, kids who got into Dartmouth or Yale may have their acceptances revoked. Who would that help?

Jackman does some of the best work of his career here, finding fascinating gray areas in a man who is holding a few secrets of his own from his fellow administrators. The film overall can be a little too low energy—but there are interesting acting choices throughout, and some really fascinating discussion topics for when it’s over.

A film this awards season that’s likely to be beloved is Marielle Heller’s touching “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” starring America’s Dad Tom Hanks as America’s Saint Fred Rogers. However, this is not a biopic of the man who helped raise millions of Americans. In fact, Rogers is a supporting character, which is in itself a daring way to tell this story. This is more a movie about how Rogers’ beliefs about acceptance and forgiveness could help anyone, no matter their age.

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Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) is a reporter who could stand to learn a lesson or two from Mr. Rogers, Daniel Tiger, and the rest of the crew. He’s assigned to do a brief piece on Rogers for Esquire—no more than 400 words. Just a quick puff piece really. But he finds himself caught up in Rogers—uncertain how much of the public version of the man matches up with the one on TV. (The movie argues all of it and that the Mr. Rogers we know from the show is basically the one he was in real life too.) And, of course, Lloyd has personal issues he needs to overcome, including resentment he feels toward an awful father (Chris Cooper) and his own uncertainty about being a new dad with his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson). While researching the piece on Rogers, he comes to terms with issues in his own life.

Clearly, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is what could be called “a message movie.” It’s designed to make you call your estranged parent when it’s over, and pull on those emotional heartstrings, but it does so in a way that doesn’t feel manipulative. It’s on the right side of that line that divides things that are genuinely sweet and calculated in their manipulations. I never felt like “A Beautiful Day” was cheap, in part because of how tenderly and seriously Heller tells the story. This is a kind film. And, yes, the emotional resolutions are all a little too tidy and neat, but sometimes it’s nice to think that if we just change the way we look at our friends, family, and neighbors, we can change ourselves too.

Finally, there’s a film about the gray area of photojournalism in war-torn parts of the world. As someone asks near the end of Ben Lawrence’s effective debut “Hearts and Bones,” how would you feel if someone was there photo documenting the worst day of your life? You’d hate it, but we come to accept it as a part of journalism around the world, as we have seen countless of life-worst days from places like Syria, for example. Some of the narrative twists in “Hearts and Bones” don’t completely work for me, especially the ending, but there’s a lot to like here in terms of how it handles a complex emotional issue with empathy and compassion, particularly through its four strong leading performances.

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Daniel Fisher (Hugo Weaving) is a famous photographer, who is preparing an exhibition of his work from the war zones of the world in Australia when he meets Sebastian Ahmed (newcomer Andrew Luri, who had never acted before now). They become friends, and Ahmed asks Fisher if he would consider not including photographs from a massacre that he took in Ahmed’s Sudanese village 15 years ago. It turns out that Fisher was there on the worst day of Ahmed's life. We also meet their partners, including Dan’s pregnant partner Josie (Hayley McElhinney) and Sebastian’s wife Anishka (Bolude Watson), who doesn’t know about his dark past.

What is the human cost of journalism? At first, Daniel is convinced that there are no works that are off-limits for his exhibition, but Beatrix Christian and Lawrence’s script asks some complex questions, and the film trusts its strong quartet of actors to breathe life into them. There are so many major Hollywood productions at TIFF, that all of us wish we could get to “smaller” films more often and that the Galas and Special Presentations didn’t suck all the air out of the room. This is a perfect example of a film that I hope TIFF elevates to a wider audience. It deserves a look. 

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