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Sundance 2023 Review: Radical – “To spend time with these inspirational people is a privilege.”

Eugenio Derbez in Radical. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | Photo by Mateo Londono

Based on a true story, Radical tells a familiar tale from a fresh perspective, one of an unorthodox teacher inspiring kids to believe in their own potential.  It’s 2011 in Matamoros, Mexico, a city where violence rips through the streets, where families are just scraping by despite working unimaginably hard.  But also, if you look just right, you can see the launching pad of Space-X being constructed in nearby Brownsville Texas, right across the Rio Grande; where the children of this town will someday watch rockets launched into outer space with wonder and dreams attached.

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It’s in Matamoros where Sergio Juarez (Eugenio Derbez) finds himself, at Jose Urbina Lopez Elementary school, one of the worst-performing schools in the country.  Half of their 6th graders are dropping out, many of them needing to help support their families, some becoming indoctrinated into the local gang.  Their funding is minimal, intercepted by corrupt politicians.  The library has meagre offerings, their computer lab equipment was stolen years ago and never replaced.  It’s considered a ‘school of punishment’ though whether that applies more to the teachers or the students remains to be seen.

Mr. Juarez doesn’t subscribe to this.  He has a different way of teaching where instead of just talking at his students, he instead gives his kids the power to learn.  Instead of following the syllabus, he asks the children, “What do you want to learn?”  Quickly they’re out turning the playground into a classroom, learning about physics and astronomy.  The students are empowering themselves with knowledge.

Not the least of which is Paloma (Jennifer Trejo), an extremely gifted student who dreams of being an astronaut, who looks out on that Space-X launch site with hope from atop the large mass of garbage beside the humble home she shares with her father.  Juarez empowers her with the belief that she can achieve her dreams, and she thrives and flourishes in his classroom.

So too does Nico (Danilo Guardiola), the soft-spoken class clown that is looking to join his brother in the local gang, who sees no way out of the violence except to go through it.  Classmate Lupe (Mia Fernanda Solis) finds an interest in philosophy and is engaged in class, dreaming herself of being a professor.  The kids in Radical are the personification of hope.  That they don’t even flinch at the sound of gunshots outside the school’s walls is affecting.  Sergio Juarez is arming them with newfound knowledge and a love of learning that might just help them break free of the cycle that has continued to suppress their potential.

Writer and director Christopher Zalla, who won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2007 with Sangre de Mi Sangre, brings to life this inspiring story from an article written by Joshua Davis in 2013.  Wired Magazine, in fact voted Paloma Noyola Bueno “The Next Steve Jobs” at just 12 years old.  The fictionalized version of her time in the grade 6 classroom of Juarez is nothing short of heartfelt and heartbreaking.  Zalla never crosses the line into over-sentimentality.  This film is ever grounded in its surroundings, always threatening everything that this teacher and his students are building and discovering.

Star Eugenio Derbez was last at Sundance as part of a little film called CODA that went on to win a few awards, if you recall.  In that film, he played a tough but warm-hearted music teacher and certainly comparisons between the two roles will come.  But, as Sergio Juarez, Derbez really shows his emotional range and instills his heart and soul into this real-life character.  He brings such a wonderful blend of patience, belief and love to these students.  We feel his successes.  We feel his losses.  We root for every one of these children as he does, because in this film they also turn out phenomenal, touching performances.

Radical is a crowdpleaser.  It will make you laugh.  It will make you cry.  At moments it will make you feel absolutely schooled by a bunch of sixth graders, and you’ll be happy it happens.  There’s not a lot to dislike here, save for the fact that the film is perhaps a little overlong, but to spend time with these inspirational people is a privilege.  This film’s sincerity is palpable.  It’s not all happy endings, Zalla does not make this a fairy tale.  The reality for these children is that unfortunately many will not be able to follow their dreams.  But there is hope, and perhaps hope that can change.  For no matter where you grow up, there is always potential.  It just takes the right person to show you how to unlock it.

Radical premiered January 19th at the Sundance Film Festival and continues in person screenings until the 29th.

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