Review by Sean Boelman
The feature directorial debut of acclaimed actor John Leguizamo, Critical Thinking is an inspiring new drama based on an uplifting true story. Thanks to a powerful message and some top-notch performances, Leguizamo is able to overcome the film’s narrative deficiencies to create a crowd-pleasing drama.
The movie tells the story of the Miami Jackson High School chess team who overcome the odds to compete in the U.S. National Chess Championship. As is the case with many films based on real-life events, the narrative is ultimately very formulaic and holds few surprises. But while the movie is admittedly pretty conventional, it is charming nevertheless.
Perhaps the main reason that the story is frequently still riveting because of the way in which viewers will be endeared to the characters. Although some of the characters aren’t as well-rounded as others (two members of the team get significantly more development than the rest), it is still very easy to sympathize with their story and journey. Audiences often connect with stories of people coming from nothing who achieve success, and for good reason.
Clocking in at nearly two hours, the film is a tad on the long side, but it works for the most part. The movie’s pacing issues come in with the subplots that don’t fully pay off. For example, a storyline about one of the team’s members facing problems at home shows a lot of promise but is never fully explored.
That said, what the film does explore is very interesting. There is a lot in this story about the racial and class tension that existed in the late 1990’s and still exists (to a certain extent) today. A few of the most impactful moments of the movie, including one about one of the protagonist’s students being tragically killed, go under the radar but still linger in one’s memory.
Leguizamo gives a wonderful turn as the teacher and mentor to these students. His performance, much like his approach to the story, is full of empathy and humanity. Known mostly as a character actor (often in silly or humorous roles), it is nice to get to see him in a more serious and substantial role.
On a technical level, Leguizamo does often play it safe, but the goal here is obviously to inspire audiences, and the film does a good job of that. Arguably Leguizamo’s greatest success behind the camera is the way in which he shot the competition scenes, as they are surprisingly suspenseful and cinematic.
John Leguizamo’s directorial debut Critical Thinking may not be the most ambitious movie he could have made, but it is a very compelling one. Audiences far and wide will connect with this heartwarming underdog story.
Critical Thinking was set to debut at the cancelled 2020 SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.