Director Cristian Mungiu has made a name for himself via his unflinching portrayals of corruption in his home country of Romania, through themes that easily have universal appeal. His 2002 debut, Occident, dealt with the droves of Romanian women that sought husbands in the West, as native men struggled to supply the security and resources their Occidental counterparts offered. And 2007's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days showed the lengths women will go through in order to obtain an abortion when the state limits accessibility. Perhaps his new offering, Graduation, seems to be a lighter fare -- a teenager must choose if she will cheat on college entrance exams in order to escape the poverty and violence of her Romanian neighborhood. But don't be fooled by the setting moving from a seedy hotel room to the halls of a high school -- the film is saturated with the same heavy layer of mistrust and desperation that make Mungiu one of the best modern voices on systemic greed and corruption.

Romeo Aldea (Adrian Titieni) is a middle-aged doctor that once had hopes for bringing change to Romania but whose only remaining crusade is getting his teenage daughter out of the country. Eighteen-year-old Eliza (Maria Dragus) is disciplined and motivated, and has all but secured herself a seat in the freshman class at Cambridge -- as long as she maintains high marks on her final exams. However, when she's assaulted right in front of her school a mere day before the exam (a clear example of what her dad is trying to save her from), for obvious reasons, she loses both her focus and composure. Romeo wants to ensure his daughter's opportunities aren't squandered in the eleventh hour by a horrific stroke of luck, so he calls in a few favours. This presents the film's principal dilemma: Is it ethical to make use of a corrupt system in order to break free from that same system?

Mungiu deals with issues of man vs. the state in all his movies and particularly likes posing the question of when breaking the law may very well be the right thing to do. But this narrative is not without its shades of gray. Romeo is an imperfect man (most notably demonstrated via an extramarital affair), and the film seems to suggest that breaking the law has corrupting effects on a character, regardless of their original motivations. The inevitable slippery slope has him confronting witnesses himself and evading police investigations, suggesting a sort of obsession and a personal belief in himself as ultra-righteous, a belief that may or may not be justified. (After all, what if everyone in society bent the rules on the pretense they he or she alone is right?)

What makes Graduation an engaging story, besides the two leads who are well-cast in their slow-to-speak but internally tormented roles, is that it's quite hard to determine if Romeo's actions are right or wrong. Parental intervention flies in the face of the current Western ethos -- where the issue is helicopter parents who hope to secure good grades and futures for their kids, when Western work ethic would suggest these young people should be able to fend for themselves. But, instead, Graduation seems to play on the age-old trope of the underdog having just one chance to escape -- and the viewer must grapple with wanting to shake Eliza into making the adult choice and seeing the long-term picture while also empathizing with her as a child who just went through an assault. Needless to say: It's complicated.

While Graduation, like all of Mungiu's films, is emotionally heavy (and the endless brown/desaturated scenes only add to that feeling), it does not feel manipulative. The most violent actions of the film happen off screen, and with all the buildup given to Eliza's choices, a lot is actually left untold. This is a tale of good people choosing between their internal compasses or deciding to play the world's game in order to get ahead. Mungiu doesn't offer a lot of answers, but gives us plenty of gray area to meander through. While not as seductive, perhaps, as earlier works, the film shouldn't disappoint any viewer keen on exploring the polarities of human morality.