- Reviewed at the 2022 Locarno Film Festival.
“School is our first dictatorship,” reads one of the placards in Sorayos Prapapan’s debut feature Arnold Is a Model Student. Its eponymous overachiever (Korndanai Marc Dautzenberg) is negotiating his final year of high school. He’s a privileged and prized student, having just won a gold medal at the mathematics Olympiad. Protected by the headmaster and coddled by his mother, Arnold can afford to slack off a little, treating the martinet Mrs. Wanee (Niramon Busapavanich) with deserved contempt. But other students aren’t so lucky and are beginning to protest the system from which Arnold has benefited.
Prapapan interlaces his film with chapter headings taken from the Guide to Surviving School, the satirical attack-cum-manifesto of the Bad Student Movement, which arose in Thailand in 2020. Bristling against the endemic corruption in the education system, students began to revolt against the rules that governed hair length, dress and behaviour and a system that still uses corporal punishment at any sign of dissent or misbehaviour; the protests have included three-fingered salutes during the national anthem, imitating Katniss from The Hunger Games.
In the film, Mrs. Wanee stands at the gates with scissors and cuts any student’s hair that isn’t regulation length. Her lessons are all about civic duty and respect for elders, but the corruption is evident to Arnold and his classmates as parents bribe the school to have their children pass admission tests. The headmaster (Virot Ali) is concerned purely with the school’s image.
Arnold sees an even sleazier side of the education system when he is approached by Mr. Bee (Winyu Wongsurawat), who runs a cramming school and hires Arnold as a ‘signaller’: someone paid to signal the correct answers during a government exam to clients. Far from being a ‘model student’, Arnold is therefore a cheat and a mercenary, as well as a teenager who drinks and smokes. But his conscience is awakening, partly because his own father – a satirist – was sent into exile.
Tonally, Prapapan’s film sides with Arnold. It is not strident; its anger seethes below the wry, exasperated humour on the surface. The adults are baffled by the rebellion of the kids, just as the youngsters are asking themselves how this older generation can expect a respect it so evidently doesn’t deserve. The film’s lightness is somewhat belied by the real-life phone footage of corporal punishments and the repression with which the protests are met. But the resistance – led mainly by young girls – is hopeful and strong: as one protestor says to the headmaster, “you can’t expel all of us.”