A star student faces a stark choice of whether to succeed in a corrupt and hypocritical schooling system or to join in a real-life student movement that is re-shaping contemporary Thai society.
Screened as part of NZIFF 2023
Teenage pressures to succeed are made acutely clear in Thai director Sorayos Prapapan's debut feature Arnold Is a Model Student. The film is a fiercely contemporary tale, in which Covid interruptions, cut-throat educational standards, and contemporary student movements form an integral backdrop to the students' struggles.
Arnold is a star pupil, who finds himself caught up in Thailand's Bad Student movement, in which students sought to push back at contemporary Thai teaching methods and the crushing barriers put in place to get good jobs. The “Bad Student” movement itself contributed to the title credits in the film—a sign that Arnold's confusion over growing up matched perfectly with the school movement that seeks to change oppressive structures devised by the adults in charge.
Prapapan's black comedy highlights a schooling system that is captured by bribery and illusory success. Incessant standardised testing is used to open doors, but some students find themselves forced to consider “work arounds” through the form of cheating companies in order to get jobs or progress in their schooling.
With its calm and detached pace, the film showcases the energy of its teenage protagonists, while also maintaining enough distance to highlight the corrupt and hypocritical schooling system the students are railing against. Despite the wider political lens, the film ultimately focuses on Arnold's choice of what to do next. His choice is stark: whether to continue in a schooling system where he is already successful, or to join his peers in rebelling against the status quo. Arnold's dilemma becomes existential: what does it mean to succeed in an environment where no-one ultimately wins? — Brannavan Gnanalingam