"I learned more about the way the world really works from my nine months on the academic decathlon team than most people will learn in a lifetime," ruminates Jolie Fitch (Jena Malone) in the coda of Cheaters, John Stockwell's dramatization of the 1995 Steinmetz school scandal. Fitch is the team leader of the crumbling inner-city school's first "academic decathlon" squad, a group of hard-working kids hopelessly outclassed by the perennial champions from a lavishly funded model school for the gifted and the rich. When a Steinmetz student discovers the question sheet for the upcoming finals, the issue isn't whether to cheat, but how. Stockwell discards easy moralizing and empty platitudes for an ambiguous perspective framed by questions of privilege and prejudice. Jeff Daniels, so long the cinema's hapless nice guy, is excellent as the tireless teacher, a well-meaning idealist who struggles with his inner demons through the ordeal. Malone is refreshing as a street-wise class brain whose ambition drives the team on. Their guilt is the focus of a predatory media scandal, but it's the hypocrisy of the system and the double standards of the gatekeepers that Stockwell takes to task in his compelling drama. Some might call it cynical, but Cheaters is too sharp and smart for such an easy label. Better to call it disillusioned. --Sean Axmaker

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