One of the more unlikely films to emerge from this year’s Locarno is the Thai debut Arnold Is a Model Student. In aesthetic, it resembles one of those well-heeled HBO high school dramedies à la Bad Education, Vice Principals—all clean lines, wide-angle lenses, and charcoal greys and blues. They usually have lashings of irony, something that Arnold—a film neither cold, cynical, or even a riff on uniformity—hasn’t. It toes a delicate line between irreverence and heartfelt good nature in telling the story of a whiz kid who takes a job helping other students cheat on university entrance exams while, in the foreground and back, a real-world anti-authoritarian movement begins bubbling up.

Arnold is the first feature of Sorayos Prapapan, a 35-year-old Thai filmmaker and foley artist who landed his first job in cinema as a production assistant on Uncle Boonmee in 2009. Soon after Prapapan took to making shorts and picking up awards; most recently in Venice last year for his lockdown story New Abnormal, winner of the Orizzonti short film award. Arnold was made under the wing of the Singapore director Anthony Chen (Ilo Ilo, Wet Season) and his production company, Giraffe Films, but there is little trace here of Chen’s melodrama; less still of his ruthless streak. (Arnold is, more than anything, quite fun; it isn’t difficult to imagine some crossover appeal.)

For one, in the eponymous role is newcomer Korndanai Marc Dautzenberg a joy; an actor with effervescent energy and a generous, expressive face. His Arnold is cleverer than his classmates, maybe even teachers, but he’s generally liked in both camps. He’s also nihilistic enough to be essentially flawed and thus relatable: in one telling sequence Prapapan has Arnold’s fellow students speak to camera, saying what they want to be when they graduate, but when it comes his turn the hotshot academic prize winner is at a loss for words. The film follows Arnold’s slide into the shady, semi-legal world of the study bootcamps that give kids a leg up into university, at least those who can afford it.

Arnold’s first task is to pose as their phony poster boy, but he later becomes their man on the ground, flashing signals in exam halls as military men stand watch. This sequence, skillfully conceived by Prapapan, is so nerve-wracking you’re left wanting more—if a hack like me were to have written it, the story would have followed Arnold’s Icarian rise in this underworld, seduced by the spoils, and only seeing the error of his ways too late. Questions of class—or the connotations of a genuinely gifted kid gambling his talents to help the more affluent (the first kid he helps to cheat is the son of a woman on the school board)—would only occur as an afterthought, but in Model Student those ideas feel subtly baked-in, never explicitly explained but always clear. As the film keeps you on your toes, attuned to the wider politics, subtexts become sharper.

The backdrop to all of this is the “Bad Student” movement (the film is split by animated sections that quote a real-world “survival guide” published by the movement), which began as a protest against teachers caning schoolkids but grew into a surge—it made headlines around the world when involved students adopted the three-fingered hand symbol from The Hunger Games. In another astute move, Prapapan allows this discontent to fester not through one grand catalyst but a litany of microaggressions: only when the girls notice the absurdity of their teacher chopping lumps from their hair each morning does the nature of the many other wrongdoings begin to dawn on them.

It’s difficult to express the tricky balancing act of Prapapan’s approach: at times he playfully mocks the protestors, but the film is never less than on their side, always alive to the seriousness of their cause and the repercussions: amongst his glossy, fictionalized account, Prapapan seamlessly cuts to raw smartphone videos from real protests, showing tear gas and water cannons raining down (somehow, this doesn’t undercut the vibe with undue solemnity). Caught in the middle of this story, Arnold is the film’s moral fulcrum, an audience surrogate stuck between the easy road and the high one, unsure which to take. To watch Dautzenberg’s performance is pleasure; but his character’s choices are what Prapapan’s film is really made of.

Arnold Is a Model Student premiered at the Locarno Film Festival.

Grade: B+

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