THE STORY – Who will the sixth grade students at Jose Urbina Lopez Elementary in Matamoros become? They are among the worst performing students in Mexico, the world they know is one of violence and hardship, and their classrooms are dominated by an atmosphere of overbearing discipline, not possibility. It might seem like a dead end… but it is also the perfect place for new teacher Sergio Juarez to try something different. There’s just one problem: Sergio has no idea what he’s doing.
THE CAST – Eugenio Derbez, Daniel Haddad, Jennifer Trejo, Mia Fernanda Solis & Danilo Guardiola
THE TEAM – Christopher Zalla (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 127 Minutes
Coming from a film festival with a long, proud tradition of predictable, feel-good stories of good-hearted people working to overcome adversity, Christopher Zalla’s “Radical” is the most Sundance-y movie that has ever Sundanced. This is both a compliment and a criticism.
Inspired by a true story, “Radical” follows an idealistic teacher (Eugenio Derbez) in an impoverished Mexican border town fighting against the odds to motivate a group of young students to believe in themselves. The ‘teacher inspires students against the odds’ story has been executed time and time again with varying degrees of success, ranging from the immortal (“Dead Poets Society”) to the forgettable (“The Emperor’s Club”). “Radical” fits somewhere in between, following the plot beats of this sort of story with the faithfulness of a devout religious scholar. There really isn’t a single surprise to be had in the entire film. At the same time, “Radical” boasts such a genuine passion for its story and is so unabashedly idealistic that it is difficult not to be won over by this rousing true story.
A film like this lives and dies by the performer playing the inspiring teacher. Eugenio Derbez (“CODA“) has showcased his comedic chops time and time again but has yet to have the chance to showcase his dramatic abilities. Here, his natural comedic talents assist him in creating a believably dynamic and vibrant teacher. He is the kind of person who would ensure children get out of their seats and participate, even if that means resorting to unorthodox teaching methods the students are not accustomed to. He’s consistently funny and ensures the film is always at least entertaining to watch. But he also convincingly plays the film’s more emotional beats with sincerity and a delicacy that is instantly likable. As a result, both he and the child actors go a long way in selling what is otherwise a fairly generic and predictable story.
However, “Radical” doesn’t just feel stereotypically Sundance-y in its simplistic, feel-good narrative. Director Christopher Zalla clearly wants to showcase the raw and gritty environment the characters operate in with a degree of grounded realism. The camera lingers on shots of trash, and the aesthetic is a bleak, windswept one. This grittiness does differentiate the otherwise almost-saccharine story from others of its ilk. But that aesthetic also belies a sloppiness and lack of directorial vision. Handheld work can often be effective, bringing with it a sort of controlled chaos. Often here, however, it merely brings the chaos. Sequences set in the classroom are rapidly edited, with shots boasting little consideration to framing or where the viewer’s eye should be focused. Often shots feature children’s heads in the foreground, with Derbez barely visible. There seems to have been a desire to shoot these scenes from as many angles as possible, without much thought put into what each shot should be capturing. Other sequences, if not as frenetic, break the 180-degree rule and prove to be distracting. And if the low-contrast, desaturated look conveys the dourness and the community, it also makes for uninteresting visuals across the board. The editing poses issues on a structural level as well as the film follows Sergio and focuses on the lives of three children in his class. Their stories flesh out the world but can also halt the narrative’s pacing and natural flow.
There are some flashes of inspiration, however. Cinematographer Mateo Londono shoots tracking shots through objects like fences and gates, the multiple planes giving images a sense of visual dynamism. And there are some interesting visual metaphors, such as recurring shots of gates and locks slamming shut, connoting the way the children are trapped in their situation, or a young boy, entangled in a family of gang members standing up while a projector projects a violent video game onto his chest. The film’s score boasts xylophone-based melodies that play well alongside an appearance of Hans Zimmer’s iconic “True Romance” theme song. The ever-present sounds of gunshots, screams, and wind place the viewer firmly in the world of an impoverished and dangerous border town.
And sometimes, the film’s script digs deeper beyond the film’s feel-good trappings. Sergio drives the kids to explore interesting philosophical questions about topics such as abortion and general utilitarianism instead of the typical curriculum. The grit the filmmakers hope to convey does add real stakes to the story, and the characters endure real tragedy that adds weight to what otherwise is a light, feel-good story. The ending is touching if a bit predictable. And by the end, it is difficult not to be moved by proceedings, even if you know precisely where every aspect of the story is going.
“Radical” is anything but a radical story. It’s simple, sometimes well-told, and will more than likely give you a good cry. The true story is uplifting, heartwarming, reasonably funny throughout, and goes down easy. You just probably won’t remember it a month later.