May 8th – 10th of 1998 marked the 30th anniversary of the U.S. Chess Federation’s National High School Championship. With 230 schools from 32 states, the Wyndham Hotel at Los Angeles Airport was filled with some of the brightest minds of the time. Each one a capable competitor, each one requiring intense focus in hopes that seeing 10 moves ahead would be enough, even as they know the person across from them is likely counting on the same. That tournament would see Cuban immigrant Marcel Martinez defeat the 1997 defending champion Harry Akopyan to win the individual competition and his team would win the tournament as a whole, a first for Miami Jackson Senior High. (The full account of the riveting battle is available via the article written by Steve Immitt, USCF Organizer.) The story of triumph for Marcel, his couch Mario Martinez, and his teammates, Sedrick Roundtree, Ito Paniagua, Roedelay Medina, and Gil Luna, is the foundation for powerhouse drama Critical Thinking, the second directorial feature for actor John Leguizamo.
There have been many “school story” films throughout the history of cinema. In brief, films like Stand and Deliver (1988), Lean on Me (1989) Dead Poets Society (1989), and Dangerous Minds (1995), whether based on real events or not, seek to exalt teachers and students alike by showing what happens when a bright mind is challenged by a wizened instructor. Critical Thinking bears some similarity to these stories in that the film, written by Dito Montiel (A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints), does focus on five students from an underfunded school in a less affluent part of Miami, Florida, who rise above their station in part because of the influence of their teacher. What’s different is that the teacher within this adaptation is not the sole heart of it. Rather, Montiel’s script rises and falls on the students themselves with their intersection being Mario “Mr. T” Martinez’s high school elective chess class. Directing, Leguizamo begins with Corwin C. Tuggles‘s (Generation Um…) Roundtree waking up at home, trying to get ready for school, and getting interrupted by his father, played my Michael Kenneth Williams, who challenges him to a chess match in order for Roundtree to earn milk. Leguizamo then shifts to Jorge Lendeborg Jr.’s (Brigsby Bear) Paniagua, for comparison, who’s trying to get off a late night shift at a garage so he can run several blocks to catch the school bus. The dichotomy of this introduction sets up not only the two dramatic anchors of Critical Thinking, but also presents two sides of what life at home is like for the kids of Miami Jackson Senior High. One has a parent who pushes too much, while the other has to work nights to provide for himself and his family. Both are just kids trying to get through, yet these are their situations. Of the core students, only Roundtree and Paniagua are explored with any measure, which might make you think they are emblematic of the time/place, except the message of Critical Thinking asks its audience to look deeper. Instead of seeing what weighs them down, Leguizamo wants you to see what pushes them forward, even when they make choices whose consequences come to bite them.
As much as “school” stories uplift audiences by seeing the students succeed, they often make it seem like their success comes from having the right person believe in them at the right time. While Critical Thinking does employ some of that, by keeping the primary focus on the students, the film feels far more universal and imbued with self-empowerment. This is not to say that Leguizamo as Mr. T is insignificant in the film, it’s that the script doesn’t go out of its way to make him anything other than a teacher who cares for his students, especially in his role as coach of the chess team. For those who’ve seen Leguizamo’s Broadway show John Lequizamo’s Latin History for Morons (2018), which you should absolutely take the time to watch (it’s on Netflix), his performance as Mr. T is not far removed from his performance in this show. In both cases, the actor is presenting a version of someone who seeks to improve the minds of his audience. In Latin History for Morons, the actor uses his conversation with his son to explore the removal of Latinx influence from history. In Critical Thinking, that same energy is applied to making sure that characters within the film recognize that the only path to greatness doesn’t involve the path made by White history, that there are pieces of global history from which each of them are a part, that the fact that their minds are sharper than most is enough to escape a system which has been tooled to keep them in place. Whether or not audiences are familiar with any of his other one-man shows like Freak (1998) or Ghetto Klown (2014), the actor/playwright/director is profoundly inspired by his own life and the Latinx community, using both to create a wonderfully moving, yet understated and natural performance.
With much of the direction feeling like it was shot free-hand, the camera bobbing and weaving a bit, trailing just slightly behind the actors’ movements, Critical Thinking takes on an almost dream-like cinema verité style, creating the sense that the audience is being invited in to observe something private and personal, as opposed to something being displayed to the world. As much drama as Critical Thinking possesses, naturally as we are introduced to the main five characters, portions of their lives, and where chess fits in, what you may not expect is how griping the actual chess matches become. Within the 117-minute film, there are a total of three competitions the team engages in and each one will put you on the edge of your seat. The game itself isn’t as flashy as other sports, but it is no less athletic, something which Leguizamo captures beautifully via staging of the camera and pacing of editing. In one scene, a mixture of mid-range shots showing the respective players and a close-up of the board create a rapidly rising energy that absolutely sucks you into the match. Granted, some of this is because the script takes its time developing the individual characters as well as the group, so that when game time comes, the audience is as deeply invested in their success as they are. Whether you know the difference between the French Defense, the Caro Kann, or the Englund Gambit, or simply that there’s a white side and black side, you will find yourself holding your breath as Roundtree, Paniagua, Medina, Luna, and Martinez take on one challenger after another, each opponent calling upon them to test their mettle in ways which have zero baring on socio-economics status and everything to do with their ability to think critically, to examine actions, and understand the rippling consequences.
Critical Thinking is not without its own imperfections. Rachel Bay Jones’s tight-budget Principal Kestel and Williams’s emotionally withholding Mr. Roundtree are given just enough to not appear stereotypical, and there’s a narrative thread with Lendeborg Jr. that’s left hanging in such a manner as to drape a shadow across the truly tense climax. Even still, Critical Thinking is a solid second directorial feature from Leguizamo, in no small part achieved due to the solid script structure and performances from the cast. Too often school films like to make the educator the focal point, but, in Leguizamo’s hands, Critical Thinking is a prime example of how stories should be when celebrating victories from students. It’s their story, their victory. Everyone has a role to play, a move to make. In this case, it’s almost entirely an easy checkmate.
In virtual cinemas, on VOD, and digital September 4th, 2020.
For more information on Critical Thinking, head to the official Facebook page.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.
Would like to know what’s become of those students today (20 yrs later). The film should have included some informative notes at the end before the credits.