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AUSTIN, Texas - On Monday at a SXSW screening here, director Katie Dellamaggiore announced that Sony Pictures and producer Scott Rudin purchased the remake rights to “Brooklyn Castle,” her documentary about a group of New York schoolkids that compete regularly in national chess tournaments. This of course is but the latest doc set to be remade by Hollywood, but it’s hard to imagine a fiction film doing justice to the complexity and utter humanness of Dellamaggiore’s version.
The film uses school chess programs to evidence both the neglect legislators show towards education when time comes to cutting checks, and yet the remarkable impact that programs like these can have on the lives of the children who participate in them. A truly inspiring story, “Brooklyn Castle” ranks among the first tier of SXSW’s 2012 films, and deserves a place among documentaries like “Rize,” “Resolved” and “Spellbound” that choose to emphasize substance over sensationalism in their depiction of kids who are sadly often looked at as statistics.
The film primarily focuses on I.S. 318, a school in Brooklyn that has consistently won championships in the national scholastic chess competition for several years running. It more specifically follows five students at different aptitude levels: 13-year-old Rochelle, who is poised to become the first African-American female to reach the level of chess master; Pobo, a 12-year-old natural leader who’s simultaneously running for class president; 12-year-old Alexis, who views chess as a stepping stone to opportunities in college, and eventually, in his professional life; 10-year-old Justus, whose prodigious talent for the game belies his youthful discomfort with competing; and 11-year-old Patrick, who uses the game as a counterbalance to his ADHD. As the five students face their own individual challenges, 318 suffers budget cuts that undermine their opportunities to travel and compete, throwing their talents and the future into jeopardy.
Despite initial trepidations (at least on my part) that the film is simply the latest in a series of documentaries about inner city kids who do something that’s typically associated with privileged white ones, “Brooklyn Castle” establishes early that it’s not interested in searching out the most troubled teens in 318’s chess program, or juxtaposing every accomplishment with some backdrop of abject poverty or cliched adversity. In fact, the first real information we learn about many of the kids after we’re briefly introduced to them is that they lose matches relatively often. And while the kids hardly come from privileged backgrounds, they’re not destitute or otherwise controlled by neighborhood crime; even if their parents don’t quite understand what they’re doing, they support their interests, and for the most part are byproducts of healthy homes where they are loved and cared for.
But what the film does so expertly -- and effectively for a softie like yours truly – is show how there are both tangible and emotional reverberations to the lessons the kids learn while participating in the program. Early in the film, one of their teachers observes that chess teaches them that “it’s not so simple as right and wrong,” and the rest of the film supports that premise as the teachers offer constructive criticism in both their wins and losses that gives them a greater understanding of the world around them.
When Patrick loses a match towards the end of the film, that same instructor points out that what he should focus on is the growth he’s showing as a thinker – the ability to consider multiple options and take chances – rather than whether or not he scores another point. That there are educators with the sensitivity to nurture kids’ sense of empowerment as much as their discernible abilities is gratifying, but to see that in action and how it really helps these kids on an individual level develop self-confidence is irresistibly powerful.
Meanwhile, there are other narrative strands that theoretically could be their own movie, but they feed back into the central idea that these programs are valuable to these kids’ self-esteem, and should be protected and preserved. Pobo, for example, makes a bid for class president, and it’s not just the sense of competition that proves entertaining; it’s watching him first campaign on ideas that are tangible and positive (if admittedly unattainable for a high school class president), and then develop the leadership skills that both help his teammates and give him motivation for his future that seem aspirational in a genuinely inspiring way. These kids want to be doctors and lawyers and legislators, and it’s not just because of chess, it’s because they learn through chess that they are capable of something greater than their circumstances might suggest, and are able to contemplate those possibilities without them seeming so pie-in-the-sky that they could never achieve them.
On top of all of that, the film documents the steep decline in funding for after-school programs at schools like 318 and connects the dots between the absence of those opportunities and the accomplishments of the students. Indeed, it’s shameful that of all of the programs and systems in place, the education and intellectual development of children has such a low premium placed upon it, and while it doesn’t blame one person or politicize the issue, Dellamaggiore’s film fairly observes that budget cuts undermine these kids’ futures at both developmental and emotional levels.
At the same time, it’s not a melancholy or pessimistic film; it’s eager to champion these kids’ accomplishments and celebrate their individual aspirations without them needing to be purely connected to 318’s chess team.
All of which is why Delamaggiore has accomplished something rare and special and meaningful: she’s captured all of the dimensions of a story that would be easy to depict from just one or two. That’s also why the film transcends limitations of locale or subject matter -- it offers the kids in it and the people watching those kids an opportunity to see how their efforts to achieve are rewarded. And in a landscape of documentaries about kids learning new things, there’s something about that that’s educational for us as well, because it gives us reasons to believe that every child can accomplish anything -- and most importantly, none of those obstacles matter once they’ve been overcome.
Ultimately, “Brooklyn Castle” is a truly wonderful, uplifting film – because it’s an emotional experience that isn’t driven by what they’re fighting against, or about a system determined to stop them from doing it, but by simply appreciating and celebrating what these young kids can do.
For year-round entertainment news and commentary follow @mtgilchrist on Twitter.
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