Brooklyn Castle is an overlong but engaging look at a Brooklyn middle school, Intermediate School 318, where disadvantaged sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders have ruled the roost among America's chess-playing middle schools for 20 years.
Filmmaker Katie Dellamaggiore follows a number of children from the school, adding new "characters," even in the film's final third. She introduces us to motivated, talented children of African and Latin American immigrant families, and native-born kids with an aptitude this school is uniquely prepared to develop and exploit. We meet the parents who are just as engaged in their children's' futures.
And we are introduced to Ms. Vicary, the teacher-coach, and Mr. Galvin, the assistant principal/coach, who have turned the "chess nerds" into popular, heroic role models in what is obviously a great inner-city public school.
There are just too many characters to do justice to in what is a chess-playing variation of the "underdog team beats the odds" story that we're treated to here.
There's the gregarious Pobo, team captain, cheerleader, a great chess player who envisions his career in politics starting with winning the race for school president. The pragmatic Alexis tries to keep it all in balance, fretting over a Plan B for his life in case chess glory doesn't lead to law school. Rochelle wants to be the first female African-American grand master at chess.
The dreadlocked Justus is a prodigy who finds the competition stiffer when he hits middle school.
And Patrick, the one Anglo student profiled, sees his long climb up the chess ladder as a means of combating attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: "It helps me concentrate."
Having so many people to follow, Dellamaggiore doesn't get too deep into anybody's life. We don't hear about the long-term impact this middle school fixation has had on past students and only get a hint of how active the parents are in this program, always on the cutting board when hard times hit the economy.
But the director never goes far wrong when she just hangs with the kids, capturing their disappointment at losses and the thrill of each victory on the board.
"How'd you get down two pawns?" one boy asks another, comforting him after a loss.
Even with banners and trophies decorating the halls of I.S. 318, even with a documentary showing how cool it is to have kids challenged and motivated intellectually instead of athletically, Brooklyn Castle won't overthrow the tyranny of jocks over geeks in America's schools.
But Dellamaggiore does a pretty good job of letting parents, and their kids, dream of that day.
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