A correction was made to this review on Dec. 21, 2003.
What sounds like a sententious, TV movie-of-the-week type drama is transformed through sheer excess into an edgy, off-putting piece in “Genius,” Babar Ahmed’s strange little study of dyslexia. As with the works of many first-time helmers, it is hard to determine whether the weirdness was intentional or simply emerged. Pic, chronicling the relationship between a withdrawn black student and a bitchy, burnt-out white economics teacher, first follows a somewhat predictable path, only to end with an impressively orchestrated, unexpected zinger. Already out on DVD, “Genius” could matriculate to indie or black-themed cable.
Michael (Diogerlin Linares) is strongly attracted to bright, beautiful Hannah (Lauren Nelson), who won’t give him the time of day. Convinced he could win his fair lady if he could only master economics, Michael sets out to convince his teacher Ms. Goldwyn (Kelly Walters) to tutor him.
This proves to be a hard sell since the candy-chewing, stocky, bitter academe professes no interest in anyone or anything. Seeing as how her less-than-mesmerizing instructional presentations lead to noisy, uncontrolled classes, however, Michael finally manages to negotiate a deal whereby he will keep the students under control if she will teach him economics.
When it becomes apparent that Michael is dyslexic, Ms. Goldwyn gets increasingly involved, researching diagnoses, treatments and cures. But, Michael’s father (Christopher Diaz) violently opposes any classification of his son as “learning disabled,” and does so with such poorly-acted fervor that viewers are made (deliberately or otherwise) to think there may be some entirely different and mysterious parental backstory.
In the margins of this liberal learning experience lurk all manner of rage, mysticism and unseemliness. Ahmed uses an arsenal of visual devices — distortions, sudden pull-backs and even a series of morphs between Michael as a little kid and Michael in his present teen age to evoke violent emotional shifts that have no place in the neat schemata of educational exchange.
In one scene, an angry Ms. Goldwyn shoves Michael into a large Central Park fountain, chasing him around in what should be but definitely isn’t semi-playful splashing around until the police intervene. Intense physicality infuses everything Ms. Goldwyn does, from jogging and push-ups to stuffing her face with chocolates.
To counter her displaced fury, Michael, whose disability makes him the butt of countless dummy jokes, is preternaturally calm, possessing a serenity that drives his tutor wild.
Thesping is uneven, particularly in secondary roles. The two leads’ all-of-a-piece characterizations, however, compensate for whatever awkwardnesses creep into their line readings. Evocatively detailed score by Kathy Haggerty is excellent, and Jonathan Belinski’s lensing of the mainly Central Park locations never sacrifices spatial integrity to empty pictorialism.