Cheaters

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Cheaters

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Cheaters

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Perhaps no myth is more important to America's self-perception as a land of infinite social mobility than the concept that the country is a meritocracy. That idea has survived more than 200 years, two World Wars, and countless elections pitting one corporate-sponsored blueblood against another. But spunk, ambition, and big dreams seldom overcome the superior resources, institutional strength, and covert maneuvering of people in power, a point lucidly illustrated by the excellent made-for-cable movie Cheaters. Based on a true story, Cheaters stars Jeff Daniels as an English teacher at Steinmetz High School, a crumbling, overcrowded, underfunded institution populated by jaded latchkey kids from broken homes and a staff only slightly less angry and cynical than its students. Daniels makes his way through this cesspool of apathy with his idealism relatively intact, but even he begins to feel disillusioned after the Academic Decathlon team he coaches loses yet again to a school with vastly greater resources. When an opportunity to cheat presents itself, he and his students accept it with minimal soul-searching, a move the team's unofficial leader (Jena Malone) justifies as the ultimate act of affirmative action. As the film progresses, the team encounters increasingly ridiculous levels of hypocrisy, culminating in a condemnation of their actions by school-board president D. Sharon Grant (a convicted tax cheat) and mayor Richard M. Daley (son and heir of one of the most corrupt mayors in American history). A bracing antidote to every plucky-underdog-overcoming-the-odds movie, Cheaters convincingly presents Daniels as a man trying to sabotage a system less concerned with fair competition than with rewarding and reinforcing the superiority of its predetermined winner. Despite its uniformly excellent supporting cast, the film belongs to Daniels, who gives a powerful performance as a noble but misguided teacher making all the wrong decisions for all the right reasons. Writer-director John Stockwell has a tendency to underline points and ideas best left implicit, but Cheaters remains a compelling look at the limits of idealism and the cost of social and economic inequity.

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