The inspirational teacher movie has been a tried-and-true staple since at least 1939, when Goodbye, Mr. Chips boosted Kleenex sales nationwide. Since then we’ve been treated to countless variations on the theme – including The Blackboard Jungle, Dead Poet’s Society, and most recently Music of the Heart – none of which have veered too far from the prototype. Now HBO brings us Cheaters, a darkly comic twist on the genre that pulls the cliches of the inspirational teacher movie straight through the looking glass.

Based on true events, Cheaters centers on the 1994 Illinois state finals of the Academic Decathalon, a national high school knowledge bee consisting of subject tests, speeches, essays and interviews. Gerald Plecki, a teacher at run-down Steinmetz High, volunteers to coach the school’s team, even though upscale rival Whitney Young has won nine years in a row and is a shoo-in to do so again. Though the Steinmetz teammates are bright and willing to put in the extra hours of study, they simply can’t compete with the resources of the better funded Whitney Young squad. That is, until Steinmetz’s Irwin Flickas (Dov Tiefenbach) shows up at the classroom with a stolen stack of the subject tests in hand.

It is at this point that Cheaters shows what a smart – some would say cynical – little movie it really is. Does Plecki tear up the test booklets and suspend Flickas from the team? No. Do the students agonize over whether or not to do the right thing? Hell, no. Aside from one foreign exchange student who has a brief crisis of conscience, they don’t even think twice. Of course they’re going to cheat. And thus a dazzling roundelay of hypocrisy and rationalization is put into motion.

After their upset victory, suspicion immediately falls on the Steinmetz team, which reacts not with guilt but with outrage. From the team’s point of view, they are simply leveling the playing field of an unfair class system. As team leader Jolie Fitch (Jena Malone) puts it, "this is the ultimate affirmative action." And so the deception continues. Inspired by a scene in Stand and Deliver, in which barrio math teacher Jaime Escalante lashes out at accusations of cheating on the part of his underprivileged students, the Steinmetz team seizes on a strategy of self-righteous indignation. Even after their wall of secrecy crumbles and the truth emerges, they still insist they have done nothing wrong – or at least no more wrong than anyone else has done. Those in a position of wealth and privilege cheat all the time, they argue. It’s just that the system is set up to prevent them from being caught. They have a point, of course, but unfortunately it’s a point the prevailing power structure is never going to acknowledge.

This fact is not lost on the teacher/ringleader Plecki, played by Jeff Daniels in a refreshing break from the seemingly endless string of doofuses he has portrayed in recent years. Daniels does a superb job at conveying the warring impulses that drive Plecki, a decent man who has been worn down by a sense of futility over the injustice of a system he can’t control. Standouts among the young actors who make up the Steinmetz team include the convincingly weasely Tiefenbach and the seemingly wise beyond her years Malone, who defies all the usual "smartest girl in school" conventions.

Writer/director John Stockwell displays a firm grasp of filmmaking technique, with a particular knack for propelling the story forward through montage. He does occasionally overstep – playing the Rocky theme as ironic counterpoint when the Steinmetz team collects their trophies should have seemed like a good idea for about three seconds and then discarded immediately – but he brings much more audio-visual verve to Cheaters than is seen in the typical direct-to-cable production.

Without giving away too much about the ending, rest assured that the old "cheat, cheat, never beat" platitudes do not exactly prevail. This is no Afterschool Special, and it would seem pretty safe to say that the wry ironies of Cheaters won’t be finding a place on the shelves of P.S. 101 anytime soon.

Scott Von Doviak