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‘Radical’ review: Eugenio Derbez plays an unorthodox teacher in a standard but attractive crowd pleaser

From To sir, with love through Stand and deliver and Dangerous settings, inspirational dramas about dedicated teachers who overcome the apathy of underprivileged students to broaden their horizons usually adhere to a formula set in stone. But if that formula works, it works. On rare occasions, a movie in this narrative ballpark breaks the standard, like Laurent Cantet’s The class, with its grainy, documentary-style textures and illuminating social and political context. Writer-director Christopher Zalla adheres to the conventions of the subgenre and does not skimp on sentimentality, but Radical more than deserves its soaring emotional payoff.

Given the attack on the tear ducts coupled with the resolute channeling of hope even in the aftermath of tragedy, it’s no surprise that the film scooped Sundance’s Festival Favorite Award, voted by the public. That should help give it a boost, along with a magnanimous starring role from Mexican superstar actor and comedian Eugenio Derbez, who played another idealistic teacher in CODA.


It comes down to

Formula-like but undeniably effective.

Event venue: Sundance Film Festival (premieres)
Greenhouset: Eugenio Derbez, Daniel Haddad, Gilberto Barraza, Jennifer Trejo, Mia Fernandez Solis, Danilo Guardiola Escobar, Victor Estrada, Enoc Leaño, Manuel Cruz Vivas
Director-screenwriter: Christopher Zalla, based on an article from Wired by Joshua Davis

2 hours 7 minutes

Based on the remarkable true story of Sergio Juarez Correa, a teacher in the northeastern Mexican border town of Matamoros, the film was conceived by Zalla (who won the 2007 Sundance Grand Jury Prize for his first feature film, Father Nuestro) from one Wired magazine article by Joshua Davis, who serves as producer alongside Derbez and Ben Odell. It is set in 2011, a particularly heated time in the drug wars, in a city plagued by violent crime, poverty and corruption, where the outlook is so bleak that learning beyond the basics is often seen as a waste of time.

Derbez’s Sergio must face all that and more when he volunteers to teach elementary school students at Escuela José Urbina López, known informally as “The School of Punishment” and one of Mexico’s least desirable internships. The gates are locked every day during school hours to protect the children from the city’s criminal element, but their motivation to learn is tempered by jaded teachers and an institutional policy that emphasizes discipline and obedience over education.

From day one, Sergio breaks down the barriers that separate him from his pack of young students, even as skeptical principal Chucho (Daniel Haddad) advises him that authority is key: “Don’t let the kids get the upper hand.” But Sergio has some solid ideas. He left his last teaching position after a slump, brought on by a nagging disappointment as more and more students dropped out. Needing a full reset, he saw José Urbina, with its overwhelming failure rate, as the ideal place to test a new methodology that caught his attention online.

His radical approach to classroom time is that it “shouldn’t be about making learning happen, it should be about making it happen”. To that end, his main aim is to encourage the children to recognize their potential, making it their responsibility to use it. He tells a story about a mule that fell into a well and the farmer who owned it decided that the cost of lifting it out was worth more than the animal, so he started filling the well to prevent further mishap. But the mule was able to climb up the growing pile of dirt and save itself. What he tells his students is that they should not allow themselves to be buried by unfavorable circumstances.

Although the children resist at first, more amused than intrigued by Sergio’s games, they soon become involved in lively conversations on advanced topics such as physics and philosophy. Instead of filling their heads with facts, he encourages them to think for themselves, to open their minds, even if it means asking stupid questions or giving wrong answers.

The ensemble of young actors is natural and attractive without ever aiming for cuteness. Zalla’s script focuses on three of them, and while the overlong film gets off to a slow start, once the characters are established it captivates you.

Lupe (Mia Fernandez Solis) is a bright young girl whose maturity has been accelerated by the responsibility of taking care of her younger siblings while their mother works night shifts and sleeps during the day. With another brother on the way, the demands on her will only increase. When Sergio recognizes a philosophical streak in her thinking, Lupe doesn’t even know what that means. But she is curious enough to investigate and heads to the university library for research when she enters the under-supplied José Urbina facility.

Nico (Danilo Guardiola Escobar) is the mouth-watering clown of the class, at risk of being drawn into gang life with the local drug runners, such as his loving older brother Chepe (Victor Estrada). He surprises himself by becoming motivated enough to participate in – and excel – in a science project, telling Chepe that the new teacher makes him feel like he could be smart for the first time.

That newfound intellectual curiosity fuels Nico’s touching infatuation with the story’s third and most central student, Paloma (Jennifer Trejo). She lives far below the poverty line in a dusty shack with her ailing father (Gilberto Barraza), near the city’s dump. He makes a meager living collecting scrap metal to sell, while Paloma searches for discarded books and objects to reuse in surprisingly imaginative ways. She dreams of becoming an aerospace engineer, which Sergio encourages by drawing her attention to a scholarship program that sees the aerospace industry rise in the state.

Most of the young characters are composed, but Paloma seems closest to the real thing; her inspiration for a math genius made the cover of the Wired issue with Davis’ article, and her exam results after a year in Sergio’s class are perhaps the most uplifting revelation of the incredible factual epilogues in the closing credits.

Even though most of the story seems to be based on authentic experiences, in some developments Zalla can’t quite escape the hint of clichés – parents resisting nurturing their child’s unrealistic ambitions; corrupt officials who appropriate funds intended for much-needed computer equipment for schools; a teacher angling to cheat the system and get an incentive bonus; the standard eleventh-hour misadventure that renders Sergio’s quest hopeless.

The same goes for a tragic incident that feels too filmy, even if the frequently heard gunshots outside the school and the visible presence of crime in the area usually make it achievable.

But there’s an underlying integrity to the storytelling that makes sure these kids succeed and validates Sergio’s commitment to risk-taking. A great help in all of this is Derbez’s generous, influential performance, who suppresses his comedic instincts to play a feeling man determined to push back against defeat. He gets great support from Haddad, the initial misgivings of the by-the-book headmaster giving way to full support in a corny but sweet buddy thread.

Radical hits many familiar beats, particularly the rousing emotional speech to the kids on exam day and the will-they-or-won’t-they-show tension surrounding a major student whose path forward seems blocked. But Zalla is careful not to turn it into an all-encompassing triumph, acknowledging that some children will be left to fend for themselves due to insurmountable circumstances. Still, resisting the overwhelming emotional appeal of the closing scenes is futile.

DP Mateo Londoño’s widescreen images capture the dust and windswept gloom of the place, with stray dogs roaming the streets and people hurriedly locking their doors to stay safe. Beautiful shots of the beach where Nico hangs out provide a soothing contrast.

Pascual Reyes and Juan Pablo Villa’s melodic percussive score gently elevates the steady wave of feeling, along with wonderful use of the mournful a cappella tradition of the canto cardenche of the northern desert plains. If your face isn’t stained with tears when you hear the rousing choir voices singing “Una Mañana muy Transparente” at the end, there might be something wrong with you.

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