Review by Jonathan Berk
Teachers in cinema have been portrayed time and time again. Often, teachers take the role of a bitter antagonist to the misunderstood students — sometimes to the point where they seem like supervillains, like Miss Trunchbull in Matilda or Mr. Strickland in Back to the Future. Then, there are the stories of inspirational teachers who go above and beyond to improve their students’ lives, like John Keating in Dead Poets Society or E. R. Braithwaite in To Sir with Love. For people who want to believe that one person can make a difference, this latter archetype tends to land. It’s only helped if the film is based on a true story, like director Christopher Zalla’s new film, Radical.
Radical follows teacher Sergio Juárez Correa (Eugenio Derbez) as he attempts to employ a new teaching style to break through the apathy of his students — and hopefully unlock their full potential. However, when making a change to the system, there will be some who try to keep the status quo.
Derbez is incredible in this film. From the moment we meet his character, it is clear that there’s an electricity to his performance. He tells his students to find a lifeboat (which are tables turned upside down throughout the classroom), and when they hesitate, he eventually fakes his own drowning in the sea of the classroom floor. The audience and his students aren’t quite sure how to take this guy. Is he crazy? Enthusiastic? The answer is it’s some combination of the two.
The film picks up as the school’s director, Chucho (Daniel Haddad), takes in interest in this odd approach to teaching. He visits Sergio at home — and from that moment forward, their chemistry is an on-screen presence that simply works. The bond that forms feels very organic and makes for an incredibly emotional journey between the characters.
While the adults in the film are excellent, a movie about school kids only works if the child actors are also good. Fortunately, this film found an incredible group of children. Jennifer Trejo as Paloma, Mia Fernanda Solis as Lupe, and Danilo Guardiola Escobar as Nico are the clear stand-outs. That’s not to say the other kids in the class don’t get a moment to shine, but these three are featured heavily in the story and are up for the challenge.
The overall look of the film is also notable. Everything feels lived in and in bad shape. Sergio picked this school because of an article detailing their new computer lab. When Chucho shows him the lab, his plan takes a major hit. To say the school’s resources are sparse would be an understatement, but no element of the production is as visually impactful as Paloma’s home. The bad shape of Matamoros, Tamaulipas is embodied by the massive junk yard surrounding her home, and the irony of her situation is highlighted as she watches SpaceX from her telescope atop one heap.
This particular story isn’t an easy one. There are some incredible moments, and some that feel likely dramatized. However, the emotional journey of this class and this teacher’s drive to inspire students to reach their potential is one worth watching. While we have seen this story in movies like Stand and Deliver, Lean on Me, Freedom Writers, and even the TV movie The Ron Clark Story, it seems that Radical can replicate the formula quite well.
Radical will be in theaters on November 3.