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RADICAL (2023) review

November 6, 2023


written by: Christopher Zalla
produced by: Benjamin Odell, Joshua Davis and Eugenio Derbez
directed by: Christopher Zalla
rated: PG-13 (for some strong violent content, thematic material and strong language)
runtime: 110 min.
U.S. release date: January 19, 2023 (Sundance), October 20, 2023 (limited) & November 3, 2023 (wide)


We need stories like “Radical” to remind us that magic can still happen in the classroom. It all depends on the teacher. We can all name a teacher (or teachers) who left an indelible mark in our formative years. That’s one of the reasons why when we see a film that revolves around a teacher who cares, one who thinks outside the confines of a set curriculum to connect with students in a meaningful manner, we are moved and reminded of the impact one person can make at a time in the life of a child when they need it the most.

Set in 2011, in the border city of Matamoros, Tamaulipas, an area gravely impacted by the ongoing Mexican drug war, the story of “Radical” introduces us to Sergio Juárez Correa, a new teacher at the José Urbina López Primary School. Located in a poor community that is victim to corrupt politicians and violent gang activity, the institution is known as a “School of Punishment”, primarily for its run-down facilities, lack of computer equipment, and generally low expectations. Because of this, the majority of the instructors have given up, and resolved to do the bare minimum with the resources they have. Their only concern is the government-mandated standardized tests (which the children have scored miserably on in the past) and that’s solely because of the implications the test results have on their jobs.

Sergio (Eugenio Derbez) is given a classroom of sixth graders and surprises them by taking a different approach to teaching. He’s a sudden, last-minute hire, after their previous teacher quit a day before the school year starts. When the school principal, Chucho (Daniel Haddad), checks on the classroom, he is as baffled as the students are. Sergio has transformed the classroom, turning all the desks upside down and lining them up in groups, proclaiming that the desks are now boats and the floor is the ocean. Their assignment is to determine the right number of them for each boat, to save all of them from drowning. He even sprawls out on the floor, pretending he’s trying to swim and then drown, much to the amusement of the confused kids. The skeptical children are as dumbfounded as Chuco is stunned by Sergio’s actions.



That’s no surprise, considering Chucho has drilled a militant mantra into the children’s brains at the beginning of each school year, “Silence is the foundation of obedience; obedience is the foundation of discipline, and discipline is the foundation of learning.” These are children who have enough stressors at home, considering many of them have to take care of siblings (and sometimes parents) or are courted by the local gangbangers, before or after school, as they maneuver around yellow tape associated with the crime scenes common where they live. Nevertheless, Chucho advises Sergio, “No one gives a damn what happens here…don’t kick the hornets’ nest.”

On this first day of school, Sergio’s students must determine how and why a boat floats to determine how many of them can be distributed onto the desk boats. Sergio leaves them to figure it all out by themselves, asking astutely pertinent questions of him and each other, that lead to discussions about mass, volume, and density. One girl, Lupe (Mía Fernanda Solís), has a fascinating observational question…how do they decide who to save when there is not enough room in a boat? Sergio lights up at this, sharing with the class that he believes Lupe to be a philosopher, thinking along the lines of someone like John Stuart Mill (and this in turn inspires the girl to check out library books on Mill and philosophy). At one point, Sergio leaves the classroom, wandering the school to the amazement of Chucho and other teachers, as he allows the students a chance to work out the math and moral problems of the assignment, and in turn, such independence gives them confidence.



The boat exercise gives Sergio a chance to see the different personalities of the students he’s been given. He notices that another girl, Paloma (Jennifer Trejo), has all the answers but is too shy to share with the class, keeping her intellect to herself. When Sergio learns of her desire to be an aerospace engineer, he encourages her passion for math and astrology. There’s also Nico (Danilo Guardiola), a quick-witted boy who is both a leader and is something of a class clown. When Sergio sees himself in Danilo, he shares with the boy, “I was something of a class clown myself when I was your age. So, here’s some advice…don’t change.”

At first, Chucho is concerned about Sergio’s approach, but when it’s clear the results are positive, he becomes more interested in these methods. One evening over a beer, Sergio shares instructive YouTube videos with Chucho from Indian scientist and education philosopher, Sugata Mitra, who proposed a student-led learning environment (similar to the Montessori method). Knowing how boring lectures and tedious memorization will leave the children with a strong disinterest in the subject matter, Sergio seeks an alternative approach that would instead get the students engaged and involved. This mindset is why Sergio has reassured his students not to worry about grades and not to be afraid of mistakes, asking them “What do you want to learn?”

Such a question often elicits discussion on relevant, albeit heavy subject matter, like when Lupe (whose mother has given birth to more children than their family can afford) brings up the topic of morality, specifically whether or not abortion is right. Circling the students on the floor in a mantra-like meditation stance while contemplating this (and other related) subjects gets Sergio in hot water with the visiting administrator (Enoc Leaño), who winds up damaging some of the students with cruel and insensitive comments about what they have not learned.

As writer/director Christopher Zalla moves the story into its third act, “Radical” ventures into some familiar territory. The home life of each of the three students that we get to know is examined, showing viewers how their realities of life outside the classroom are preventing their education from flourishing. Much of what we’re seeing at this point in the film are story elements that we’ve seen in previous movies with similar stories. 1988’s “Stand and Deliver”, in which Edward James Olmos earned an Oscar nomination for portraying math teacher, Jaime Escalante, comes to mind. Another sterling example is “The Class”, a 2008 French film by Laurent Cantet. Due to the subject matter, the great performances (especially the kids), and the inspiring journey “Radical” takes us on, such familiarity winds up an afterthought.



For many of us, our first exposure to Mexican actor/comedian Eugenio Derbez (who serves as executive producer here) was in his role as the high school choir director in the Oscar-winning “Coda” from 2021, even though he’s been in many American films and television series since the 2010s. In “Radical”, he plays another inspiring teacher here, the kind with an unorthodox approach we’ve seen before, but Derbez’s natural comic timing, balanced with a genuine earnestness holds the film together. Thanks to Zalla’s script, Derbez’s Sergio isn’t a one-dimensional character either. We get an idea of what motivates him and see a glimpse of his life outside of school, helping to establish his relatability.

“Radical” is based on a 2013 Wired article entitled A Radical Way of Unleashing a Generation of Geniuses by journalist Joshua Davis (who also serves as one of the producers here), who seems to have a penchant for finding inspiring stories revolving around smart and eager young students living in impoverished environments who attend underfunded schools. Davis took a previous Wired article he wrote, La Vida Robot, and turned it into a book, which was then adapted into “Spare Parts”, an inspiring drama released in 2015. That film focused on a group of students from a mainly Latino high school, who won first place over M.I.T. In movie form, both of these stories may easily get lost in the mix of “feel-good, inspirational”, seemingly checking off the conventions that come with based-on-true-events stories, but so what?

If they are well-told stories, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a crowd-pleaser that’s based on real-life characters and situations. Sometimes the right combination of great performances from a spot-on cast and a genuinely inspiring albeit heartbreaking story is enough.

Like many of these kinds of stories, Zalla includes epilogue information via title cards that inform us what happened with Sergio Juárez Correa and some of the students.



RATING: ***1/2



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