Critical Thinking

By Joanna Langfield

John Leguizamo’s salute to the high school chess team that could (and did) is the kind of compact, inspirational and entertaining film that used to find an audience. I hope it still can.

Leguizamo, who directs and stars, took the story of a terrific teacher working with underserved kids in a Miami high school, and makes the tough but sweet reality into an appropriately hard knocks tale of victory. Who would have believed a gang of inner city kids could turn out to win the National Chess Championship? A teacher, a man named Mario Martinez, did. And his savvy instruction, mentoring and determination got his wary principal, as well as his students, to believe it, too.

Does Dito Montiel’s screenplay feel a bit by the numbers? Yes. Do we pretty much know what’s going to happen from the first scene? Sure. (Which is why I haven’t shied away from spoilers here.) But the charm of Leguizamo and the handful of young actors who play his students is irresistible. A few scenes, which feel improvised even if they’re not, work so well, we can’t help but root for all these people, each of whom is desperate for a win.

Of course it’s terrific to watch a feel good picture about LatinX and Black people (almost every key character here happens to be male) and Leguizamo is amplifying their humanness by putting their story on the screen. But he takes no short cuts: the violent and economic reality of some urban neighborhoods isn’t exploited, but it isn’t ignored, either. And, maybe especially now, when more of the world is learning the importance of teachers and classroom experience, we are also reminded of the vital, underappreciated role our educators can play, the indelible mark they can make on those who need it most.