The “inspirational teacher” sub-genre is one that gets unfairly diminished due to its reliance on sentimentality to choreograph a very particular audience response. While gritty detachment often garners more respect, there is an admirable artistry to crafting a well-made crowdpleaser that reminds you that there are real-life heroes in the world fostering the next generation. Director Christopher Zalla returns to the Sundance Film Festival after winning the Grand Jury Prize in 2007 for his feature debut Sangre de Mi Sangre with a formidable new entry into this subset of films. Adapted from a Wired article by Joshua Davis, along for the ride as a producer here, Radical both delivers what you want from such a true-life story and finds nuances within the familiarity.
Eugenio Derbez continues down his rewarding path of comedian-turned-respected actor as he evolves from more broad fare like How To Be A Latin Lover and Overboard to subdued, dramatic turns such as his pivotal role in the Oscar-winning CODA. Partially produced through the actor’s own company, 3Pas Studios, Derbez seems to be carefully curating the next stage of his career, and he is hitting all of the right notes. Once again in the role of teacher, this time general education instead of music, Derbez plays elementary teacher Sergio Chavez, a figure who seemingly blows in out of nowhere into the border city of Matamoros, Tamaulipas in Mexico.
The year is 2011, and the Mexican drug war is at a fever pitch. The constant threat of violence around every corner has sapped pretty much all hope from the community. The kids attending Jose Urbina López Elementary School have seemingly already had their fates determined by society. The school is barely operational, the disillusioned teachers are only interested in achieving the bare minimum, and the money for a computer lab they were awarded by the government vanished before the ink was dry. Outside of school lies even less hope, a common occurrence being the sight of dead bodies on the street to the point that there is no reaction. Not to mention the more personal obstacles that await them at home. On nearly every level, these children have been failed by society.
Despite the previous Mary Poppins-esque imagery, Sergio is not simply a magical figure who blows in with the wind to wave a magic wand and fix every problem for his students. The only “magic” he brings to these kids is care and self-confidence. While this genre often goes for a “get on their level” approach to learning, this story refreshingly reminds you of the natural curiosity that resides in children and how rewarding that can be when properly nurtured. Rather than stick with the curriculum—much to the chagrin of his colleagues—Sergio allows his students to guide what they learn. The simple act of asking questions and being given the runway to solve it with critical thinking is as much of a rush as many “traditional” high-stakes dramas. What is more satisfying than seeing a kid not simply regurgitate something they have memorized, but actually making real world connections and understanding why something works the way that it does?
The movie once again surprises in the way in which it does not put Sergio in the “lone wolf” position when it comes to reinvigorating his students. There are echoes of a more uninteresting movie when the school’s principal, Chucho (Daniel Haddad), struggles to understand the maverick approach of Sergio, yet this storyline blossoms into something more rewarding when their dynamic falls more into the realm of a buddy comedy. Through learning more about both of their backgrounds, they are humanized in a way that aids the more sentimental moments from feeling overly saccharine. This relationship is handled so well that it makes you wish that the script had developed Sergio’s wife a bit more, a character with a few key moments but lacking depth in the shadow of an already substantial runtime.
As strong as the adults are in this narrative, it truly would be nothing without a memorable array of students. Despite a couple dozen in attendance, the story really focuses largely on three remarkable young talents. The quiet Paloma, played to perfection by Jennifer Trejo, is a scientifically-minded hidden genius with big dreams of being an astronaut despite living in the middle of a literal landfill. The endearing Lupe (Mia Fernanda Solis) is not as obviously brilliant as Paloma, but she has an inquisitive soul that catches fire upon learning about philosophy. The biggest potential obstacle for her is in her responsibility to act as parent to her younger siblings while her mother works. Finally, there is Nico (Danilo Guardiola), the class clown circling a life as a gang member who for the first time sees potential in himself beyond transporting drugs.
The care with which the script handles these stories and those of the other students is what allows this to transcend typical Hollywood fluff. There are huge swings of emotions that will make you want to keep a tissue box handy, but the film itself never feels as if it is betraying realism for emotional manipulation. There are triumphs and there are heartbreaks, but each feels genuine. A relatively restrained script is complemented by a practically flawless ensemble. Derbez delivers his finest performance to date, capably balancing the playfulness required to connect with children with the dramatics conjured from operating within a broken and corrupt system.
Radical is a story you have seen before, but it is the telling of it that makes this film something special. A great teacher is capable of shepherding their students towards a more rewarding path than they ever dreamed possible. It is expected from the genre, but the film is nonetheless effective in reaffirming their importance in the ways these children begin to see themselves. When the final title card gives you a big picture overview of Sergio’s impact, the focus is primarily not placed on what happens with any individual student, but rather the cumulative impact of giving kids a chance to succeed. The delicate handling of this heartfelt material positions it to be one of the great feel-good films of the year.
Radical had its World Premiere in the Premieres section of Sundance Film Festival 2023.
Director: Christopher Zalla
Writer: Christopher Zalla
Eugenio Derbez delivers a rewarding spin on the inspirational teacher trope
Dillon is most comfortable sitting around in a theatre all day watching both big budget and independent movies.