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A new high school movie captures what I love about Persona

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Bad Genius is a fantastic heist film about standardized test cheaters.

I’m hesitant to recommend one of my favorite video games to my close friends, most of whom play only a few games a year, most of which involve the acronyms NBA, GTA or COD. I love the Persona series, but the few times I’ve pushed a copy on a buddy, the windy story, the sexually grotesque monsters, and an exhausting runtime amounts to one immobile roadblock. At some point over the summer, I gave up on indoctrination.

I still don’t have a perfect Persona game to recommend for friends, but this week I found a film that captures a lot of what I cherish about the series — in a more digestible runtime.

Bad Genius is a Thai film about a brilliant, but impoverished teenage girl who gets bribed into an increasingly complex standardized test cheating scheme. The film became an instant hit when it opened in Thailand in May, and won Best Feature the following month at the New York Asian Film Festival. I had a chance to watch a screening at Fantastic Fest over the weekend, and it’s an excellent film in its own right. It’s also a nice, probably unintentional compliment to Persona.

Lynn, the underprivileged genius, brokers a scholarship at an elite high school, where she comes in contact with extreme wealth and its accompanying privilege in the form of her new classmates. When Lynn discovers the teachers and administrators milk students and parents for additional, legally-questionable payments, she agrees to help her peers cheat on exams for cash, hoping to save enough to climb above her social rank. Naturally, word gets out and the racket expands to bigger tests, building towards an international effort to cheat on the STIC, a standardized test for admission into international colleges.

Like the recently released Persona 5, the film borrows gleefully from the history of heist films to elevate the stakes of high school drama, enlivening the intricate methodology of standard test cheating with electricity generally reserved for Danny Ocean robbing the Bellagio. Instead of explicit heists, the film is built around a handful of testing sequences, with teens building plans, rehearsing strategy, and executing and improvising under the watchful eye of grumpy adults.

Bad Genius also shares Persona 5’s structure: its band of teenagers are introduced individually, first in the present, then briefly through an interrogation sequences that take place at some unknown point in the future, contrasting the humdrum school day with some grim, vague and seemingly inevitable conclusion. They are presented not as quirky adults in kid’s clothes, like in Brick or Wes Anderson films, but as teenagers with rich, but realistic interior lives. Both Bad Genius and Persona show compassion for their young characters, treating their problems (getting into a good college, living up to the expectations of their parents) as legitimate as any trials of being a grown-up.

But where the game and film diverge is accessibility. Even as a fan of Persona games, I can relate to friends who struggle to stick through the first dozen hours of any entry. The hook of the series isn’t the arcana, but a pitch perfect depiction of high school, particularly the tricky balance of student life. There’s unapologetic emotional vulnerability; laughable self-seriousness; and the delusion of grandeur that you, yes You, are the star around which the universe spins. For this reason, adults (creatively bankrupt, morally compromised) have opted to wage an invisible war against you and your precious youth. And I admire the way it tries and occasionally succeeds in tackling issues of class and the hypocrisies of adulthood, whether it be the fraud of a national celebrity or the unchecked power of a local gym teacher.

Bad Genius isn’t as ambitious as Persona. It speaks to a specific anxiety of teenage life, rather than the dozen or so themes crammed into each Persona game. And its runtime, while accessible, doesn’t allow for the sense of living in the shoes of its characters provided by its video game counterpart. But Bad Genius shares its heart with the Persona series. Now, when I want to convince a friend to give Persona a try, I’ll start with Bad Genius, an amuse-bouche before Persona’s endless buffet.

Bad Genius does not currently have a US release date.