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Dublin: 8 °C Friday 10 July, 2020

I watched How to Cheat in the Leaving Certificate so you don't have to

Forget Oceans 8 and watch our very own Irish heist movie.

I LOVE A good heist film, myself. All those high budget American blockbusters about huge heists pulled off by professional thieves… and, uh, low-budget Irish indie films about school kids.

I’m here today to talk to you about one of the best bad heist films in the world. It’s weirdly plotted, it’s kind of camp, it’s inexplicably in black and white. Please  put your hands together for Ireland’s very own 1998 epic, How to Cheat in the Leaving Certificate.
This film is older than practically everyone sitting this year’s exams (we mustn’t forget Stephen  Byrne). Maybe it’s not the kind of thing you’d want to watch for fun, but maybe the kind of thing you’d lie about having watched, so people think you know obscure movies?

Never fear my friends, I’m here to give you the best of both worlds: I watched How to Cheat in the Leaving Certificate, so you don’t have to!


The film opens with a truly terrifying monologue from a guy who I guess is the principal? He has one of those spiteful old authority figure faces on him.

“Failure in the Leaving Certificate means failure for the rest of your lives,” he says, just so it’s obvious he’s a symbol of an Oppressive System™.

“This is your alarm clock”, he says, holding an alarm clock.


This scene is in black and white, so you already know one thing about this film: it’s artsy. You may hope that only this scene is in black and white. But then the next scene happens. And the next one. And the one after that. And you realise that oh god no. This is just how it’s going to be. Oh god.

Like any classic heist movie, most of the plot is spent on our brave heroes assembling a team. They have a main man (Fionn, who is actually cheating in the exam); a second, quirkier main man generally played by Brad Pitt (Cara, who dropped out to travel); the local shithead who thinks he’s Morrisey (the one with a driving licence).


“My best friend Cian committed suicide because he was caught cheating in the Leaving Cert,” says Fionn.

“You have bad taste in friends,” says the evil Principal, “don’t let it affect your grades.

“I’m devastated about it but I’m working very hard” says Fionn.

“I don’t want to hear this. Go talk to the guidance counsellor, for the love of god. Don’t weep on anything on your way out,” says the-principal-I-guess, hiding behind a football.


Moral justification firmly established, we’re taking down the Leaving Cert for Cian, the gang recruits a nerd (from the Young Scientist Awards, in case you forgot that this was an Irish film), a token working class character (apparently D4s can’t bust locks), and then, for technical reasons, several more nerds.

Depending on what you came here for, you may be disappointed to find that the plan
concocted by the gang takes more effort than studying, by far. It involves chatting up a creepy aul’ lad in a bar, breaking and entering, memorising entire essays, and going to Athlone.


In between the charades, there are some awful realistic parts in this film. Here is Leaving Cert year in all its gory detail. There’s people memorising a speech they do not understand for their orals; there’s longwinded and constant debates on whether all of it is worth the stress at all; there’s Mammy having a conniption at the mere mention of a year out.


To be honest, the main way this film shows its age is in what passes for a computer hacking. It’s kind of depressing but you could change nothing about the script and still have a really cutting film about the modern education system.


The gang break into the warehouse where the papers are stored, rob a copy of everything. Local genius, Una, writes perfect responses for Fionn to regurgitate in the exam. An almighty lot of effort, you must admit.

The heist itself goes off without a hitch. We get some trippy scenes of our dear Fionn with his mouth hanging open in a dark warehouse, boxes labelled ‘mathematics’ and ‘gaeilge’ looming around him.

On the road home, some poor old culchie tries to convince the Dubs that Athlone is the centre of the universe. Una the mega genius writes exam-perfect responses to every paper. Not a single thing could go wrong.


Except betrayal. With a week left until the exams, it comes out that our token working class character has sent copies of the English paper to his Galway girl. She gets caught with it. The paper is going to be changed. The group deals with this by, ah, getting in a fist fight at the top of a hill.


Couldn’t keep that one under lock, mister locksmith?

In the end, Fionn gets his six A1s. A big wave of seriousness piles in as the main characters are interviewed by journalists about their reasons. This ridiculous heist wasn’t driven by a quest for points, but a hope for justice.

The aim was to highlight the flaws in a system which continues to drive young people to such desperate highs of stress every year. The hope was that it might change.

That’s why, even with its the weird janky parts, I love this movie. It tragically has a lot to say that’s still relevant about leaving cert stress and the effects it has on people sitting the exams. If it was a serious movie, it would be too dark to watch. As a comedy, it gets you to agree with its big point without depressing you about it.


And you know what else it is? It’s free to watch on Youtube, uploaded by the director himself.

Source: Graham Jones/YouTube

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About the author:

Aífe McHugh

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