Radical Review: Eugenio Derbez Is Better Than Ever In This Formulaic But Powerful Teaching Drama [Sundance]

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Every few years there comes another drama that focuses on a teacher facing seemingly insurmountable odds with a group of students who are challenging to teach. Typically, these movies, such as "To Sir, with Love" starring Sidney Poitier, "Stand and Deliver" with Edward James Olmos, "Lean on Me" led by Morgan Freeman, or "Dangerous Minds" with Michelle Pfeiffer, take place in urban settings where the school is overridden with crime and drugs, resulting in students who have no respect for authority and no interest in learning. Of course, that all changes when each film's respective teacher offers up some kind of revelatory lesson that sparks the interest of the young minds who maybe just need an opportunity to leave their rough upbringing behind. 

The new Sundance-selected drama "Radical," written and directed by Christopher Zalla and starring Eugenio Derbez, is one of those movies, but there's something a bit different about this one that makes it a little more harrowing and powerful. 

Based on a true story, "Radical" takes place in 2011, in Matamoros, a city in the northeastern Mexican state of Tamaulipas. Immediately there's an ominous vibe surrounding this place, as our story opens on an elementary-aged boy pushing his grandmother on a wheelchair through the desert at dusk. Suddenly, a teen boy on a dirt bike speeds up and warns him to get off the road. They're smart to heed his advice, because a gang of delinquents speeds up in a pick-up truck, with two bloody and beaten men chained up to the back of it, forced to keep up with the truck as it drives through the sand. This is just a taste of what dangers lie within Matamoros.

Teaching Without Teaching

The driving force of "Radical" follows Eugenio Derbez as new teacher Sergio Juarez, who is taking over the sixth grade class at Jose Urbina Lopez Elementary in Matamoros. These students are among the worst performing students in the class, but what else would you expect when the school looks like a rundown prison, their library looks like it's been totally ransacked, their computers were stolen by criminals, and the money intended to build a new computer lab was snatched by corrupt officials. Even though these aren't inherently bad kids, the entire school is run with an air of disdain and discipline. None of the teachers are happy to be there, the principal is too aloof to do anything about it (at least for now), and the entire school seems to be engaged in their teaching efforts only in order to get a raise for improving their student's test scores, even if that means cheating in their preparation.

Of course, Señor Jaurez is about to shake things up with a radical (hey, that's the title of the movie!) new teaching method. Rather than forcing his students to memorize the facts and formulas needed for government-mandated state tests, he lets them determine what they want to learn. After an enthusiastic problem-solving lesson sparks an interest in boats, a few of the kids become curious about what makes things float on water, especially massive steel ships that seem like they should sink to the bottom of the ocean. Rather than merely giving the students the information, Señor Jaurez (who doesn't actually have some of the answers himself) waits for the students themselves to theorize answers of their own through discussion and deductive logic. It leads them all around the school, from the library to a trough filled with water outside the school, all in the search of answers to their questions. His approach is so successful that students can't turn off their curiosity after class is over, and they're off to the races.

What follows in "Radical" is that spark you always see in movies like this. Kids who otherwise would be lost to a life surrounded by drugs, crime, poverty, and hopelessness suddenly feel curious about the world outside of their dangerous bubble. They realize that there might be a future for them outside of Matamoros. There's even a genius-level girl named Paloma (Jennifer Trejo) who has kept her dreams of rocket science at bay, and she finally feels like there's a viable path for her to become an astronaut. Typically, this kind of storyline deals with teenagers, who often dabble in more questionable behavior as they experience puberty and get closer to adulthood. But what makes "Radical" resonate even more is the young age of the kids in question.

The Kids Aren't Alright

These are sixth graders. Most of them have never seen a computer or a cell phone. What they do see is bloodied, dead bodies lying in the street on their way home. Gunshots echo through the parking lot as school is let out. Screams are heard in the distance. It's just another day in the life of these young kids who never really have a chance at living an ordinary childhood. Nico (Danilo Guardiola) is on the verge of being recruited into the criminal gang that his brother already works for, and there aren't any parents to keep them out of this kind of trouble. Lupe (Mia Fernanda Solis) is forced to take care of her two younger siblings, basically acting as a mini-mom because their actual parents have to work around the clock to sustain them. The distressing life these kids are forced to live at such a young age makes the formulaic proceedings hit that much harder. Each and every child actor in this movie is outstanding, from their expression of joy in the face of learning to the heartbreaking reactions to the world that always seems to be shoveling dirt upon them.

Meanwhile, Eugenio Derbez has never been better as Señor Jaurez. He brings an unbridled enthusiasm and compassion that immediately makes you root for him, utilizing both his natural comedic skills and charm alongside his impressive dramatic chops. But he's not painted as this perfect character. Jaurez doesn't have all the answers, but he's doing his best to lift these kids up and set them on a more promising path. Admittedly, his teaching method isn't something that would work for all kids either, and it might seem a little too simplistic to feel revelatory.  But knowing this is based on a true story certainly helps assuage any of that criticism. In fact, you'll find that not everyone gets a happy ending in this story, regardless of how inspiring it might be. Not all of these kids are going to make it to seventh grade, for a variety of reasons, but that's just the reality of the world they live in. 

"Radical" doesn't reinvent the wheel when it comes to what we've come to expect from teaching dramas. The movie's message may not be profound or revelatory either, but that doesn't keep this from being an uplifting story full of hope and heart. There's a reason these kinds of stories continue to be told, and "Radical" feels like one of the standouts that could inspire a new generation of teachers to step up and try to change the world. 

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10

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