How to Cheat in the Leaving Certificate (1997) Poster

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A very funny Irish independent film about the education system
GusF11 June 2016
Warning: Spoilers
Graham Jones' directorial debut, this is a very funny Irish independent film about the education system. The Leaving Cert is a state examination that approximately 55-60,000 students in Ireland - and in one Libyan school, for some reason... - take at the end of secondary school in June every year. The 2016 exam session began last Wednesday, hence why I watched the film. University placements are allocated according to the number of points students get in the exams with the maximum number being 600. I did the Leaving Cert twice, in 2006 and 2007, so I have a better idea than most of how little fun it is. I would rather walk - no, crawl - across hot coals than do it a third time (which thankfully wasn't necessary). I have been in university at undergraduate or postgraduate level continuously since 2007 and, except for a few weeks towards the end of my final year as an undergrad, it was never as stressful as the Leaving Cert. At the time of its release, the Junior Minister for Education Willie O'Dea condemned the film (in spite of the fact that he had not seen it) as he was concerned that it would serve as an instruction manual on how to cheat. O'Dea has never been one of the guiding lights of Irish politics (insofar as they are any) but he is likable, mostly harmless and always good for a laugh, sometimes even intentionally.

It has a very good script by Jones (who was only 22 when it was made), Tadhg O'Higgins and Aislinn O'Loughlin which argues convincingly that there are different types of intelligence and the Leaving Cert only caters to one. It is far from a perfect method of examination as it relies heavily on learning by rote and predicting what will come up in the various exams based on trends in previous years. The humour in the film is more witty than laugh out loud funny, though they are quite a few such moments, and Jones directed it very well. The decision to shoot in black and white was probably taken more for financial than artistic reasons but it nevertheless works in the film's favour as it is evocative of the great heist films of days gone by. Although I have worked within the system for longer than most, the concept of taking on the system appealed to the Devil May Care aspect of my personality and I very much enjoyed it on that level. The script does a great job at expressing the frustrations that many students experience while doing the Leaving Cert, which takes two years of preparation, so that was very relatable. When the beginning of the exams is depicted, it brought back the feelings of tension and stress in a way that I didn't expect at all so that was interesting in a very unpleasant flashback sequence sort of way. As such, I have a renewed sympathy for the students doing it at the moment!

The film's strength lies in its writing as opposed to the acting of the stars, which runs the gamut from pretty mediocre to pretty good without ever being exceptional. This is the only film that most of them ever made, actually. It stars Garret Baker as Fionn, a sixth year student in the highly prestigious (and highly fictional) James Joyce Secondary School in Dublin. He decides to find a way to cheat in the Leaving Cert because his best friend Cian committed suicide after he is himself caught cheating in the exam and was banned from taking it again for another three years. By achieving 600 points through cheating, Fionn hopes to expose the Leaving Cert as an inherently flawed system for determining intelligence and future success in life. In the great tradition of heist films, he assembles a crack team to support him in his scheme to give the middle finger to the education system: Cara, played by Aileen O'Connor who gives the best performance out of all the schemers, who dropped out of school at 16 and wants to expose the system more than anyone else; the aspiring journalist and legend in his own mind Murphy, played by Philip Bredin; the electronics expert Elli, played by Alison Coffey; the apprentice locksmith Gary, played by John Wright; and Elli's straitlaced, 600 points achieving cousin Una, played by Tara Ford. It is eventually decided that they will steal the papers from a Department of Education warehouse in Athlone, County Westmeath (which is where I went to school) as it is the least risky of the various options open to them.

The film has a much stronger supporting cast of well-known Irish actors (well known in Ireland, anyway): Eamon Morrissey as the principal Mr. Fornson (who tells the students that the doors of success will be closed to them for life if they fail, a speech which every principal in Ireland gives at least twice a year), Mary McEvoy as the well- meaning but inattentive and irresponsible school guidance counsellor Charlie McDaid (who was still better than mine), Mick Lally as the Chief Examiner, Bosco Hogan as a newsreader and Maureen Potter as Una's mother. In a pretty odd move, Jones also cast several well-known figures from outside of acting in small roles: the independent senator Feargal Quinn as Fionn's father, the ever present radio presenter Joe Duffy as an invigilator and the singer Chris de Burgh as a petrol pumper. Sure, why not?

Overall, this is a very enjoyable indictment of the Irish education system. That said, I am glad that I didn't watch it while I was doing the Leaving Cert as I really might have had to do it a third time! Since I don't watch many Irish films or non-current affairs TV shows, it was a little bizarre to see places in Dublin on screen that I had passed by only a few hours earlier.
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9/10
A classic indie movie from Ireland
tonybaggot28 June 2015
This is a really nice piece of Irish crime filmmaking, albeit that the criminals are really school students. I once spoke with a woman on a train in Italy who was from Ireland about the Leaving Certificate and she said it was one of the most horrific experiences of her life, as this film attests.

The movie tells the story of a bunch of disillusioned students who think the system is wrong and some of them really have a point because their friend committed suicide under the pressure. They hope their efforts will appease his soul, or something. They hope to highlight what is wrong with the grading system and, as we watch the film, it becomes clear in Ireland they have it quite wrong. Screenwriters Graham Jones and Tadhg O'Higgins are to be credited for making this point - and with a lot of wit at that.

I really loved the fact that it was shot in black and white on old fashioned film by the looks of it and so is very much the gangster picture. It has a strange sense of irony running through it too. I guess it's a sense of irony or humour the creators developed while going through the Irish school system. Top marks!
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8/10
Quirky, fun & different
dumbbell30 August 2000
This film is VERY impressive for an Irish film. Take the time after you've seen it, and you'll realize that it makes many social comments; many of them valid. On the whole, very worthwhile. Sit down before you take your own leaving or A Levels and you'll feel very good after. Go rent now!
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