A new movie, now streaming, deals with a multi-ethnic group of aspiring chess champions. The question is, can they checkmate our Friday Film Reviewer, Mark Harrington.
This week’s at-home film is “Critical Thinking”, a new digital release directed by and starring John Leguizamo. The film is based upon the true story of five students from Miami Jackson High School who compete for the national chess championship against all odds and with no funding. Chess Grand Master Vladimir Kramnik once said “I am convinced, the way one plays chess always reflects the player’s personality. If something defines his character then it wall also define his way of playing.” Well, the breadth of character we’ve been shown in chess films has a pretty narrow range. The three main types are the reluctant, young prodigy overshadowed by a helicopter parent, the aggressive but socially aloof genius, or the singular against type exception up against a Russian or computer. As soon as he read the story of these Black and LatinX kids defying all expectations, John Leguizamo knew he had to get their story and the defining characteristics of each on the big screen. The boys’ coach, Mr. Martinez, was strict but adept at gaining his kids’ trust through empathy and a no-nonsense approach to articulating consequences to choices. He also instilled the importance of team notwithstanding the individual nature of the matches. The film embraces a heavy handed-ness that will irritate Trumpers but does so in such an un-refutable manner it really is just showing the obvious in a game where white always moves first. The plot isn’t as complicated as the moves of the game with 64 squares and 32 pieces, but the dangers of inner city slums are poignantly acute. The entire cast is strong led by Sedrick Roundtree, whose performance blends a contemplative glance with subtle forcefulness reminiscent of Alexandre Rodrigues in “City of God”.
So, on my alternative “surf is not up” rating system, ” Critical Thinking” earns my intermediate Boogie Board wave rating. John Leguizamo lumbers through this feel good, carbon copy of “McFarland, USA”, but he moves to check-mate in shattering our perception of the typical chess champion. While the film fails to capture the match intensity with any degree of realism or suspense, the quiet moments in the neighborhoods fuel the pulse of the film showcasing these brave champions, who all remain friends today. Along with the raging beat of Miami’s bongos, these victorious boys shout “from the streets we were summoned.”
“Critical Thinking” is not rated but probably should be rated R for foul language by cops, foul language in multiple languages, foul language in rap, foul language by teachers, violence but the end credits do not support any evil regime.
For KPCW’s Friday Film Review, my name is Mark Harrington and it’s been 256 days since my last drink in Hawaii and 484 days since my last drink in Ireland.