[Review] – Brooklyn Castle

3 Nov

Title: Brooklyn Castle
Year: 2012
Director: Katie Dellamaggiore
Starring: Alexis, Rochelle Ballantyne, John Galvin, Justus, Patrick, Pobo, Fred Rubino, Elizabeth Vicary
MPAA Rating: PG, some language
Runtime: 101 min
IMDb Rating: 7.3
Rotten Tomatoes: 100%
Metacritic: 74

Brooklyn Castle, which premiered at SXSW this year, has to be one of the year’s coolest documentaries. It’s about Intermediate School 318, an inner-city public school in Brooklyn which boasts the most winning junior high school chess team in the country, sort of nurturing them through its after-classes chess program that enabled them to become the first middle school team to win the national high school championship the United States Chess Federation holds every year. It’s one of those wonderfully uplifting tales, a school where 70% of its students live below the federal level of poverty and yet is the champion in one of the most intellectual disciplines out there.

What’s awesome is that Brooklyn Castle allows us to meet these students, to get to know five of these inner-city kids who are champions, to see their struggles both in their personal lives and in the game they love. Seeing them over the course of one year, seeing their triumphs and struggles, is a really neat thing this documentary achieves because it shows us the stuff that’s just infuriating, like how budget cuts of extracurricular activities in their school are poised to threaten the best thing in their lives, but it also shows the stuff that’s brilliant to watch unfold, like what chess really means to these kids, how it allows them to believe that, if they can master the most difficult game there is, they can achieve anything they set their minds to.

Rochelle is dead set on becoming the very first female African-American chess master; Justus just got into the school and must deal with the pressure of expectations that come with having achieved that master status at such a young age; Pobo is the charming kid who’s become the leader of his team; Patrick, who suffers from ADHD, uses chess as some kind of therapy for it; Alexis, son immigrant parents who kind see his skills as the thing that has the potential of realizing their American Dream; then there’s James, the guy who’s got a lot of potential, both in chess and in rapping. It’s these kids and the others the film presents us with that make this such a winning film.

The film is, to be fair, exactly what you’d expect. I mean that in the sense that the structure is totally ordinary and you get the typical motivational story with the gifted kids and the inspiration teacher and the tension that develops because of the budget cuts and the thrills that come with the victories. But because these kids are just so damn endearing, and their stories so involving, it works. Not to mention that this doesn’t shy away from that whole budgetary cuts thing, it tackles that issue head on and as such becomes a plea for us to rally to get some funding done for these after-school programs as we see how crucial they can be in kids’ lives.

I loved this film because of that, because it told these amazing stories thanks to these remarkable kids and because it knew how to pair it up with a real issue that can get us to really take note of it. These kids are amazing and it’s really maddening to think that some may not be encouraged by the government to do something they’re so damn good at, at least this particular school does its best to allow kids to find their brains through something like chess. The way it’s told and structured may be absolutely standard, but what it achieves is pretty great.

What’s best is that even if you don’t know Brooklyn or if you don’t know chess this will still work like gangbusters for you. It’s simply an inspirational film, uplifting like crazy and how optimistic it is about the potential we have in all of us and how the American Dream, despite the look of it, can still be accomplished through something so small as a chess board. It’s also really terrific to see that we still have adult teachers and a school that bets on its after-classes programs that are there to nurture such a thing, that’s what I loved the most about all of this.

About two and a half weeks ago I saw Daniel Barnz‘s horrible Won’t Back Down which was this really bad film about what’s so wrong about the public school system and teacher’s unions and what not. Just see Elizabeth Vicary here and know that not all teachers are bad, know that there are still people like her who spend so much time nurturing these kids not just in their chess game but in stuff that will really resonate through their lives. It’s amazing to see her caring for Patrick and then being able to trust him off to Pobo, who had become the big-brother/leader figure because she had influenced him in such a way.

Scott Rudin has already bought the remake rights for this film, that’s how cinematic this story already is. I’m down for that, he’s a good producer that will probably find the right talent to make that a film that will be uplifting as hell and elicit a few tears and maybe get some awards attention. The thing is, if you want to be really inspired then you’re better off just seeing this one, the original, the one with real stories and real stakes. I’m afraid that this doc won’t get much attention because it’s one of those that really deserves quite a lot of it.

These programs are amazing, the stuff that people like Ms. Vicary and John Galvin, the vice-principal who supports her, are so eager to accomplish is the stuff that makes heroes in my mind. These kids are amazing, they’re the reason to watch Brooklyn Castle, but it’s the adults that really get to you, that make you think that, even though the system needs to work hard to do this more efficiently, there are at least after-school programs like this that will make a bigger impact on some kids’ lives than any academic program I can think of.

Grade: A-


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