One of the more reliable movie subgenres involves the idealistic teacher who turns around a group of underachieving, often unruly and disadvantaged students. From such earlier films as “The Blackboard Jungle,” “To Sir, With Love” and “Up the Down Staircase” to later entries including “Stand and Deliver,” “Dangerous Minds” and 2008’s Palme d’Or-winning “The Class,” who doesn’t love stories about inspiring educators who help young folks beat the odds?
The latest addition to this admirable bunch is “Radical,” a lovely and touching true-life portrait based on Joshua Davis’ 2013 Wired magazine article “A Radical Way of Unleashing a Generation of Geniuses.” The movie, anchored by a wonderful turn by Mexican superstar Eugenio Derbez, kicked off this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Festival Favorite Award.
Derbez, seen on American screens in the Oscar-winning “CODA” (in which he also notably played a teacher), stars as the real-life Sergio Juárez Correa, who in 2011 joined the teaching staff of José Urbina López Primary School in the border city of Matamoros, Mexico. (The film was shot mainly in and around San Salvador Atenco, a town outside Mexico City.)
Matamoros is a dusty, impoverished place beset by crime, corruption and apathy, all of which contribute to the state of its struggling elementary school, nicknamed “the School of Punishment,” where funding, test scores and student engagement are consistently, perhaps irrevocably low. That is until Correa — all jaunty, rules-be-damned enthusiasm — sweeps in at the start of the fall semester to teach sixth grade. He’s expecting an assist from the school’s computers but soon discovers they were stolen four years ago and never replaced.
Neither his wide-eyed students nor the rundown facility’s portly principal, Chucho (a winning Daniel Haddad), know what to make of Correa, who immediately steamrolls past traditional teaching methods, reimagines his classroom’s desks as lifeboats and launches into a rousing lesson about staying afloat, a resonant theme here.
There’s a learning curve, of course, but the eager kids soon find themselves on Team Correa, invigorated by his “radical” classroom stylings, intrigued by his references to such advanced topics as physics and philosophy, and encouraged by how he lets them each learn at their own pace. This includes eschewing any preparation for the standardized national exams, which Correa abhors but the school system unequivocally embraces.
It's affecting and heartening to see Correa’s students blossom before our eyes, gaining a confidence and curiosity long suppressed by their bleak environment and the school’s stale methodology. Chucho and Correa become good friends as well, as the principal is won over by the new teacher’s creativity, commitment and elan.
Typical of these films, the story zeroes in on a handful of students, offering vivid snapshots of their home and personal lives and the intrusive effects on their schooling. First, there’s the pretty, quiet Paloma (Jennifer Trejo), a nascent math and science prodigy, who helps her ailing father (Gilberto Barraza) mine salable scrap metal from the smelly garbage dump near their makeshift home. Though her suspicious dad initially thinks Correa is filling Paloma’s young head with overly big and unattainable ideas, the teacher helps him to realize — and support — the girl’s potential. (The real Paloma broke a national record that term for her standardized test scores and later made the cover of Wired, which unironically dubbed her “The Next Steve Jobs.”)
Then there’s Nico (Danilo Guardiola), who begins as the class clown but goes on to appreciate his studies and inch away from the criminal activity he’s been drawn into by his older brother (Victor Estrada) and a local gang leader (Manuel Cruz Vivas). But will education alone be enough to set him on the right path?
Finally, there’s Lupe (Mia Fernanda Solis), the eldest child in a growing family, whose new love of books and philosophy may have to take a back seat to her responsibilities at home. (She and Nico are amalgamations of Correa’s other real-life students.)
Despite the story’s upward trajectory, Kenyan-born writer-director Christopher Zalla (Sundance’s 2007 Grand Jury Prize winner, “Padre Nuestro,” a.k.a. “Sangre de Mi Sangre”) lays in enough credible obstacles, including an especially heartbreaking one, to add effective tension and pathos to Correa's and the kids’ journey.
If the script can sometimes feel a tad pro forma, the film still proves an authentically moving and involving crowd-pleaser. (Though, at a bit more than two hours, it might have benefited from some judicious trimming.)
It should also be noted that, while the real Correa was 31 when the movie takes place, Derbez, also a producer here, turned 62 in September. Regardless, the buoyant, youthful actor convincingly embodies the role (his character does drop in a sly comment about being “a little too old” to be a new father again) and makes a warm, engaging and memorable lead.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.