Start your clocks for this winning documentary
Brooklyn Castle is the sort of movie to inspire in-theatre clapping. The feeble-minded might say the same of Won’t Back Down, but here’s a story about public school children living below the poverty line that paints a portrait of strength rather than vulnerability. Under the rigorous and loving tutelage of Ms. Vicary, the chess players of I.S. 318—mostly boys, but with Queen Rochelle leading the troops—are the best middle school team in the nation. It’s a title they fight to defend match in and match out, as they travel the country collecting trophies about as tall as the sixth graders among them.
I.S. 318 is in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and the filmmaker Katie Dellamaggiore is perhaps slightly overly committed to the ‘hood’ angle. Much attention is paid to whether self-doubt or “swagger” will win out in a particularly promising player, Justus, and at one point his teammate James is filmed performing a clumsy rap about crushing his opponents. (It’s no sweat off James’s back, though. He goes on to win first place at that tournament, which happens to be the state final.) Similarly, the students are extremely confident in the happiness-ensuring principles of a law degree—everyone on the team seems to want one. Still, there’s something deeply impressive about thirteen-year-olds who know their futures won’t be handed to them and plot their moves accordingly.
More delicately handled is the film’s treatment of school budget cuts, which pose an especially dire threat to the oft-traveling chess team. And so we get a soft reminder of the importance of public education as the players do battle via walkathons, dunk tanks, and letters to their representatives.
The most compelling drama, however, takes place at the chessboard. This might be because you get the sense that for the most part, these kids—who are almost certainly smarter than you or I and sometimes rated higher on the chess scale than Albert Einstein—will be fine whether the budget gets cut 1%, 2.6%, or more. But when you watch one of them sweating out his last few moves or kicking himself over a game misplayed, it’s impossible not to feel his anguish, which seems fairly unrelated to whether he will indeed go to law school and more a crisis of self-worth. “I lost a pawn and then I just fell apart after,” the usually tight-lipped Justus tells his mom after calling her from the hotel lobby.
In addition to the lessons of failure, which are especially unwelcome when “you’re already trying as hard as you can,” as Patrick, a low-ranking player who struggles with ADHD, laments, the kids get a taste of seeking out solutions on their own. Sometimes—often, even—they find it. Rochelle earns a full ride to UT-Dallas thanks to chess. Patrick graduates with a strong record and a high GPA. We learn that the chess team of I.S. 318 goes on to win the national high school championship. Cheering yet? —Kate Guadagnino