Film Review: Radical
Director: Christopher Zalla
In Theaters: 11.03
The “stand up and cheer” sports movie is a genre beloved by many, with rousing films such as Rocky and Hoosiers serving as much needed feel-good inspiration. While I do enjoy them on occasion, I prefer the idealistic teacher movie, and the best of them energize me like little else. Radical is the newest addition to that list.
In 2011, in Metamoros, Mexico—a border town located next to a garbage dump and plagued by the violence of the drug trade—the sixth grade class at José Urbina López Primary School are among the lowest-scoring students in the country. When Sergio Juárez (Eugenio Derbez, Instructions Not Included, CODA) takes over as their teacher, he’s determined to shake things up and make the kind of impact on his students that his favorite teacher did on him. Sergio’s radical new methodology begins with the simple phrase “so, what do you want to learn?” This ignites a fire in his students, catching the attention of Director Chucho (Daniel Haddad, The Good Girls), the burned out educator who runs the school and has resigned himself to “the way things are.” When Chucho learns that Sergio is making it up as he goes, he’s more than a little concerned about where things are headed. There’s only one thing stopping Sergio from losing his job: his method is working.
Based on the WIRED article A Radical Way of Unleashing a Generation of Geniuses by Joshua Davis, Radical is a fact-based drama that chronicles a stunning turnaround in educational results that earned worldwide attention. Writer and Director Christopher Zalla (Blood of My Blood) paints a vivid picture of a poverty-stricken village where survival is everything and hope seems like a fantasy, and he makes this world almost disturbingly relatable. More importantly, Zalla makes the students of José Urbina López into three dimensional characters who represent real kids rather than stock character types. Each portrayal is distinctive and shines with authenticity, making Radical all-absorbing and the stakes feel even higher than in any thriller.
There’s no greater objective than giving children the tools and encouragement to change the world and themselves, and Radical captures the spirit of this philosophy to perfection. The inevitable moment where unexpected tragedy nearly drives the educator to give in to despair is easy to classify as cookie-cutter storytelling. However, Radical feels so true to the setting and characters that such plotting feels not just excusable but necessary to drive the point home: the challenges that some children face in day to day life are far greater than we even imagine.
Derbez is wonderful as Sergio, embodying the kind of teacher who makes a superhero seem like a feeble role model while still feeling grounded in human imperfection. The obvious comparison is Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, and Derbez is worthy of that kind of iconic status. Haddad gives stellar support in a role that refreshingly refuses to adhere to stereotypes, and even better are the children themselves. Jennifer Trejo (Saw IX) is marvelous as Paloma, a budding young scientific genius. Danilo Guardiola Escobar as Nico, the class clown who is being pulled into the drug trade, brings remarkable depth and believability to his performance, and Mila Fernanda Solis charms as Lupe, a girl who is torn between her desire to learn and grow and the pressure to be a caregiver to her siblings while her mother works.
Radical is a beautiful and deeply affecting drama that reminds us that knowledge is power, the children are our future and density is heavier than mass (if you want to know why I included that, see the movie). The film is a testament to the power of determination with a strong message about our responsibility to make sure that the most vulnerable in our society are never deprived of hope. It easily earns more than a passing grade from me and stands among one of the year’s most memorable and praiseworthy films. –Patrick Gibbs