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February 25, 2018

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Perfect Score, The
(Reviewed January 30, 2004)
Rating: Not worthy of a star
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Here are just some of the important questions asked by The Perfect Score. Is the SAT exam fair? Does it discriminate against women or minorities? Is there a bias built in by the assumptions of the mainly white male questioners? What kind of test is it really? Since it is now officially just the SAT and not the "Scholastic Aptitude Test," as it used to be, does that mean that it no longer tests aptitude? Is the meritocracy of which the SAT exam is the principal screening tool legitimate or humane? Why are people so desperate to go to a "good" college, or to college at all? Does the excessive demand for a credential justify those subject to that demand in taking any means necessary to get it?

But Brian Robbinsís film answers none of these questions. Instead it turns into a typical teen-movie designed to produce that familiar warm and fuzzy glow as all the supposedly bad kids who try to steal the answers to the the SAT from the fortress-like headquarters of the Educational Testing Service (or are they just the ETS now?) in Princeton, New Jersey, turn good in the end, and all the awkward and difficult moral issues raised by their cheating are conveniently forgotten. Even the pot-head, Roy (Leonardo Nam), is treated with indulgence when he proves to be that most dishonest of all the recent teen-movie clichťs (see, for example, Good Will Hunting), the slacker-savant.

The leader of the conspiracy is Kyle (Chris Evans), whose SAT score of 1020 suggests that his desire to attend Cornell to study architecture may be a trifle over-ambitious. He needs a 1430 on the re-test and plots with his friend Matty (Bryan Greenberg) to get it in the only way he thinks he can. Matty has just been told that his scores are too low for him to go to the University of Maryland, where his girlfriend is a student. If he is unable to join her there, he thinks his only alternative in life is to work for his father cleaning septic tanks.

Roy, the pothead, has to be brought into the scheme because he overhears, while smoking a joint in the rest room, Kyle and Matty plotting their heist. The reasons for the subsequent inclusion of Anna (Erika Christensen), the good girl desperate to get into Brown, and Desmond (Darius Miles), a basketball player who needs a 900 to join the Red Storm of St. Johnís University, are pretty obscure, but naughty Francesca (Scarlett Johansson) is brought in out of necessity because her father owns the ETS building. For her part, Francesca doesnít need to cheat, but she thinks the SAT is discriminatory ó I mean apart from discriminating between the clever and the stupid. "Itís anti-girl," she tells the others. "Itís anti- a lot of s***, but it definitely has girl issues."

But everyone can see that Francesca is also desperate for her fatherís attention ó though nobody thinks to say, "Oh-oh" about this ó and the desire of the teen rebel to raise a middle-finger to adult authority is all that she or anybody else has to go on in the end. Of course we know everything will turn out all right. First the film sets up a series of false dichotomies, like Mattyís between Maryland or merde. Then it shows the kids giving their all to win on their own terms. Then, when the going gets rough, they all slap their foreheads and say, "Oh! Theyíre false dichotomies." Duh!

Itís true that young people do often learn about the world in just this embarrassing way, but allowing them to do so here without cheating the ETS instead cheats us out of the serious treatment of its themes and ideas that the movie promised in the beginning. For the fact is that the SAT really does need looking into. The insistence that SAT doesnít stand for anything anymore ought to be a tip-off that its defenders are ashamed of the fact that it is an aptitude test, and that teenagers are so largely sorted into professional and meritocratic sheep and low-end, "some college" office-working goats on that basis alone. Or almost alone.

But neither they nor the colleges which so largely depend on their numbers want to think about that. Nor does this movie, whose worst feature is that it allows not only the would-be cheaters but also the ETS to come off completely unscathed.




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