"Perfect Score" a Perfect Mess
The Perfect Score (2004) Starring Scarlett Johansson, Darius Miles, Erika Christensen, and Matthew Lillard (briefly). Written by Mark Schwahn and Marc Hyman and Jon Zack. Directed by Brian Robbins.
I like heist movies. And I like movies that respect teenagers. So I was eager to see The Perfect Score. The 2004 film, it turns out, is disappointing but not a total disaster.
The film went through re-writes by three different screenwriters, the last of whom was influenced by different test audiences. As a result, the film is confused. Someone behind this film obviously had some respect and sympathy for youth, and someone else did not.
One thing is clear: The Perfect Score goes down as the preachiest heist movie ever. The protagonists are a group of high school students who plot to break into a building and steal answers to the SAT exam. They don't spend as much time burglarizing as they spend making speeches about how unfair it is that colleges use SAT scores to decide which students to admit.
For all the sermons, this film never makes a good case. If a college has many applicants and can only admit some, how should the college choose without using the SAT? Should they use grades? In K-12 schools, grades are earned more by pleasing teachers than by displaying any academic ability. (The movie even admits this reality by showing a student who possesses mathematical brilliance but gets bad grades, presumably because his teachers have failed to engage him.) Too many teachers abuse the power they already hold over students. Should we now add into teachers' hands all the power currently held by SATs?
This film preaches against standardized tests, but never offers any alternative nor explores the consequences of doing away with the SAT.
Other than that, the film has no consistent viewpoint. Example: Should teenagers be rebellious or submissive? The film's answer depends on which scene you're watching.
On one hand, it's a film about teenagers breaking the law. That suggests they are strong enough to stand up to adults. Near the end, we also see Erika Christensen, who is supposedly a subservient goody-two-shoes (even though she's part of the heist), finally stand up to her mother, and the film embraces this act of strength.
On the other hand, there's the basketball player (Darius Miles) who lets his mother bully him around, and the film glorifies the mother. Like all black mothers in the movies, this black mom is strict, gives dirty looks, bosses her son around, and inspires terror in her 7-foot son. The film presents this mother as a role-model for parents in the audience. The film's narrator, a friend of the basketball player, even tells us how far he himself goes out of his way to please this effective mother. "Trust me: you want D's mom happy." What message does that send to parents in the audience? The opposite of the message sent when the white chick tells off her bossy mother. (Unless the filmmakers are trying to tell us white youth deserve respect and minority youth do not.)
Other contradictions abound. The whole film is about stealing answers to a test. Then at the end, the students decide not to use the answers even after they went to all that work. Why? The characters have no believable motives for refusing to use what they've stolen. Obviously, someone involved in making the film decided it would send young people the wrong message to have the young heroes cheat on a test. Breaking and entering, fine. Stealing, fine. But cheating on a test: that's something teenaged movie-goers might actually do. We must tell the kids that cheating is not cool.
If you want to watch a teen heist film, go watch Sugar & Spice again. For all the great heist movies that have been offered to old film-goers just since 1990, there have been virtually none for young film-goers.