Not since the release of “Stand and Deliver” in 1988 and “Lean on Me” in 1989 has a feature film shown in such engaging detail the power that can be generated when young minds are tested as the new release “Radical.” Just like those two previous works, the new Spanish-language offering is based on a true and that just amplifies the importance of the production.
Sergio Juárez Correa (Eugenio Derbez) is a career teacher who has reached a point of frustration with the educational system in Mexico. He finds the process lacking in imagination.
His last-ditch effort to rekindle his passion and help young minds leads him to a job in a small Mexican border town where neglect, corruption and violence are prevalent. He becomes the teacher for a class that has registered the lowest scores on standardized testing across the country.
No one seems to care until Correa arrives full of hope and aspirations. His task will not be easy. Correa faces countless obstacles just to get the youngsters to come to school. Some must miss classes to work and make money for their families while others are being drawn into the deadly and dangerous drug world.
Many students are just bored with the tedium of the curriculum attending a school that many refer to as “un lugar de castigo.” That translates to a place of punishment.
The solution for Correa is not to try to teach the children but figure out a way to help them find out how to learn. If he can spark a moment of thinking in them, then he might have a chance.
Just like Edward James Olmos (who earned an Oscar nomination for his work in “Stand and Deliver”) and Morgan Freeman in the two superb films about education, the key to making “Radical” work is the casting of Derbez. Much of his career has been productions for Spanish-speaking markets but he has shown with work such as the Academy award-winning film “CODA,” that he is one of the best actors working today no matter which language he is using. He is also equally as beautifully diversified when it comes to being able to handle serious dramas or comedies.
Derbez is able with “Radical” to go from a teacher with hopeful optimism at being able to save the children from educational quicksand to a very distraught husband and father who is on the verge of quitting. Both ends of the acting range are equally powerful and believable.
His strong acting skills were a gift for director/writer Christopher Zalla. Because there was such a solid central figure, that allowed the director to surround Derbez with a cast of unknown actors to play the students. Despite their lack of professional credits, the performance Zalla gets from the cast is natural but never to the point of looking amateurish.
Jennifer Trejo’s portrayal of the student with the most potential and the most emotional issues is particularly convincing. She adds to the solid central acting core.
“Radical” thrives on the need to make the viewer believe there is a reason to be optimistic but not so blatantly wide-eyed that the reality of the situation is lost. Credit Zalla with crafting a story that is as compelling and strong as the way he filmed the project.
The production starts out on a higher level as this is based on a true story. Too often, writers and directors lose faith in reality and begin to sprinkle in fictional elements. The blend is never done well enough to keep fact and fiction from rubbing together to create sparks of discord. Zalla leans into the truth with every scene.
Do not let the fact that the film is based on a true story, focuses heavily on a broken educational system or is in Spanish keep you from seeing the project. It is an education in how a film can remind us how engaging and entertaining a production can be if it is willing to go against the standardized way movies are made.
The movie opens in local theaters on Nov. 3.
Cast: Eugenio Derbez, Daniel Haddad, Gilberto Barraza, Jennifer Trejo, Mía Fernanda Solis, Danilo Guardiola.
Director: Christopher Zalla
Rated: PG-13 for strong violence. Thematic material, strong language
Running time: 127 minutes.