South By Southwest
Rochelle, one of the kids in Brooklyn Castle, examines a chess board.
If I could pick only one film from the South By Southwest film festival and bodily force everyone I know to see it, it would be Brooklyn Castle, a documentary directed by Katie Dellamaggiore that follows the chess team at I.S. 318, a New York junior high school that has become a superpower at national tournaments.
Because the school has, as the principal explains, a poverty rate of about 70 to 75 percent, it would be easy for this film to be a very obvious, very shallow story in which the moral is that even kids from the worst possible circumstances can succeed. That's not what it's about. These are kids who are, in many ways, profoundly blessed: they're very bright, they're personable, and they have loving, supportive families. At ages where a lot of kids (quite understandably) don't do a lot of long-term thinking, these are kids who are focused on getting into one of New York's specialized high schools, so they can go to college, so they can get great jobs someday. And they're in eighth grade. (When you see them react to the day the letters come that tell them whether they got into one of those high schools, ask yourself whether you were that excited about anything having to do with your academic future when you were 13.)
In other words, these kids aren't interesting only because their school has a high poverty rate, and the film doesn't condescend to them on that basis. They're interesting — fascinating, really — for the same reason people who are great at something are always fascinating, which is that they have passion for what they do. Of course, passion in a 13-year-old looks different from passion in an adult, but these are individually defined, very appealing kids. If you've seen Spellbound, the terrific documentary about the kids working toward the National Spelling Bee, it will remind you more of that than of the Hollywood trope of disadvantaged youths inspired by a brilliant teacher.
At the same time, the film is also making an argument about the importance of the extracurricular activities that are most imperiled by school funding debates. Some who watch the film may be surprised that even a reputation-making program like the chess program at I.S. 318 takes cut after cut after cut as the school's funding drops. Dellamaggiore wants not only to tell the story of these particular kids, but to argue for how important chess — and you can substitute art, or music, or sports — can be to any kid.
One of my favorite things about the way the movie is structured is that while it opens with a focus on Rochelle, who's seen moving on to high school from her position as I.S. 318's highest-ranking player (and, sadly, just about the only girl you'll see participating), it doesn't spend its time exclusively with superstar players who win tournaments, which wouldn't really be fair. After all, when funding falls, one thing that can happen is that there's still money to support the participation (and tournament travel) of the really great talents like Rochelle, but not enough for everyone.
And that brings us to Patrick, a kid who uses chess in part to work on his concentration, because he has ADHD. Patrick is not a high-ranking player; he's toward the bottom of I.S. 318's roster. But chess is important for him, too, and he's presented as just as important a part of the program as Rochelle and the other superstars.
The tricky news about this documentary that broke at the festival is that Scott Rudin and Sony Pictures have bought the rights to remake it. In other words, they're going to make a "based on a true story" Hollywood film based on this delicate story, and to be honest, that terrifies me. While there are movies that come out of stories about kids that are actually about kids (Akeelah And The Bee comes immediately to mind), it's far more common for classroom stories to become about the adults. I have a gnawing fear of seeing somebody like Charlize Theron (an actress I really like) as the woman who coaches the kids in chess. I fear the focus drifting from the kids to the adults who are more easily played by existing movie stars.
This is a story about the school and the coaches and the parents, but it's really a story about the students. I deeply hope that it remains a story about the students, and if you ever get the opportunity to see it — which I think you will — I encourage you to seize it immediately.