How To Cheat In The Leaving Certificate (1998)

D: Graham Jones
S: Garret Baker, Philip Bredin, Aileen O'Connor

Low budget, black and white, independently produced Irish feature film written and directed by inexperienced amateurs and featuring a cast of young non-actors alongside a plethora of Irish celebrities in cameo roles. Yet even given these basics, this film generated more excitement and positive press than several of the large-budget high profile films of recent years including Jim Sheridan's The Boxer. Why? Well, everyone likes to see the system getting a going over, and the target of the film's obvious but not undue and predictable but not flat satire is the Irish Education System, in particular the ominous watershed of the Leaving Certificate, bane of the seventeen-year olds of the Nation for decades.

Following the suicide of a close friend, Fionn (Garret Baker) devises a plan to cheat on the Leaving Certificate to show up the system he believes was responsible for his friend's death. He enlists the support of a motley crew of co-conspirators including card-carrying trendy social drop-out Cara (Aileen O'Connor), know-it-all investigative journalist Murphy (Philip Bredin), teenage electronics boffin Elli (Alison Coffey), bored locksmith Gary (John Wright) and shy, repressed brainbox Una (Tara Ford). In the style of the classic 'caper' movie, the gang plan and execute their plot to steal copies of the test papers from the Department of Education's warehouse in Athlone, prepare perfect answers and have Fionn win the prize awarded to the top student of the year, after which he will announce he has cheated and bucked the system.

Shot on Super 16mm and blown up to 35mm for commercial theatrical distribution, the film frequently looks less than attractive despite cinematographer Robbie Ryan's attempt to imbue the film with a film noirish atmosphere characteristic of a low budget production. But this is a mere technical glitch which won't prove much of an obstacle to audiences who know what to expect. On the same note, the film's often raw tone and less than professional acting will probably not bother you if you are predisposed to its spirit of enterprise and its devotion to a fast-moving and tightly constructed plot. Sometimes it all adds to the film a certain air of 'realism', and it does teeter over the edge into a mock documentary mode at the end. But of course, these are necessary tonal sleight-of-hands for a low budget film, and should not be mistaken for genius.

It is easy to see why screenwriter Eoghan Harris turns up as one of the film's investors given his own penchant for Hollywood style screenplays, because for all rough and ready qualities, the film is driven entirely by its narrative. It is a simple heist movie with the usual character sub-plots which spin off quite naturally from the central premise, and it is done very well on those terms. At the end, each of the characters has 'learned something', and the resolution of Una's story is one of the film's funniest moments. Though again, it all tends towards the obvious, it works as well as it needs to and the need for a strong sense of narrative in Irish films is duly served.

There is nothing terribly surprising here on any level, but it is fun to watch. Few people who have sat through the exam (and any comparable exam in any other country) will resist the film's attempt to question the logic of the system, and though it is never subtle about it, it makes its point very clearly. Written and directed by gutsy twentysomethings who badgered the relevant financing bodies until they gave in (aided by private funding from various individuals including Chris De Burgh), the film is a testament to a necessary spirit of enterprise, even if the result is not a masterpiece. It is certainly entertaining, and that may be more important in the long run as far as a developing Irish cinema is concerned.

But it is important that we don't get ahead of ourselves as critics and observers of Irish film (even though we hug the proverbial shore and don't make any practical contribution ourselves). How To Cheat In The Leaving Certificate is an enjoyable movie, but it is still an amateur film which moves fast, hits hard and moves on before you get a chance to question it very closely. Judged by the standards of professionally made films like The Butcher Boy, Guiltrip and Nothing Personal, it hasn't a chance; nor is it meant to. But the responsibility we have therefore is to be careful not to fall into the age old trap of praising an Irish film which is a little bit interesting like it is a great work of cinema. I don't think anyone involved here thinks it is that, so why should we? Have fun, watch it and use it to browbeat your teachers if you're still waiting for the hammer to fall, but remember: it's only a movie, Ingrid.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.