Critical Thinking (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): Predictable but exemplary

“Critical Thinking” is another inspirational sports drama film based on a real-life story, but it distinguishes itself to some degrees compared to other similar films out there. While it is rather predictable and contrived at times, it still holds our attention as a sincere and thoughtful tale about a group of inner city high school chess players who come to excel themselves under the guidance of their passionate educator, and its several flaws are mostly compensated by a number of exemplary moves along the narrative.

Set in Miami, Florida in 1998, the movie quickly introduces to us several high school students learning chess from a teacher named Mario Martinez (John Leguizamo). Although these and most of other students were sent to his class just for causing troubles in the school, Martinez has tried to instill the interest in chess in them nonetheless because he believes that playing chess not only stimulates their intelligence but also improves their self-esteem as a ‘great equalizer’. As a result, some of his students, who turn out to be much smarter than they seemed on the surface, have been his favourite students, while others remain to be more or less than, well, bystanders simply spending time there.

While mainly revolving around Martinez’s chess class, the movie gradually establishes the harsh reality surrounding his three favourite students: Sedrick (Corwin Tuggles), Ito (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), and Rodelay (Angel Bismark Curiel). Their Latino-Black neighborhood in Miami is constantly riddled with crime, violence, poverty, and there is a sudden shocking moment involved with a new student of Martinez’s class. Everyone in the class is certainly shocked by the incident, but that is something happening around them from time to time, and they keep moving on as before.

In addition, things have recently been quite difficult for Ito and Sedrick. While Ito is often late for his class as struggling to earn his living alone via nighttime work, Sedrick has been quite distant to his father as his father is still full of grief and anger due to the unfortunate death of his wife, and his father also constantly ridicules him because, as reflected by a brief bitter moment between them, he thinks his son is not that good enough for playing chess.

Meanwhile, Martinez decides to boost his students’ talent further. He needs four very good chess player students for a small local chess tournament, so Sedrick volunteers to persuade Gil (Will Hochman) to return to their chess class and fill the remaining fourth spot, though there was a rather unpleasant incident between them which led to Gil quitting the class.

Once Gil agrees to join the class again, everything goes well for Martinez and his four students, and then they win the first prize at the local chess tournament, but, alas, there comes an obstacle when they are about to prepare for a bigger local tournament to attend next. Although the principal of the high school understands well Martinez’s passion, the board of the school refuses to provide the expense for that as being more interested in other sports activities, and Martinez eventually decides to take care of all the expense for himself.

After obtaining another victory, the mood becomes more spirited among Martinez’s students, but, of course, there come a few conflicts as expected. After getting fired from his nighttime job, Ito becomes more desperate than before while also having lots of self-doubt, and that eventually leads him to the association of a certain notorious criminal figure in his neighborhood. After clashing hard with his father at one point, Sedrick finds himself living outside his residence for a while, and that surely affects the ongoing relationship with his girlfriend.

Occasionally stumbling at times, Dito Montiel’s screenplay steadily accumulates narrative momentum as usual, and director John Leguizamo and his crew members did a good job of filling those key chess play scenes in the film with enough interest and excitement. When Rodelay, who has been quite confident as a seasoned street chess player kid, and his classmates happen to encounter a Cuban boy who turns out to be more than a match for him, they subsequently recruit this Cuban boy, and there is a wonderful scene where he demonstrates his exceptional talent and skill in front of Martinez and his students.

When the story eventually arrives at the climactic part, we can clearly see the outcome in advance, but we are still rooting a lot for the young heroes of the movie, and Leguizamo wisely lets his young co-performers take the stage as humbly holding the center. While Jorge Lendeborg Jr. and Corwin Tuggles are relatively more prominent due to their characters’ dramatic arcs, Angel Bismark Curiel, Will Hochman, and Jeffry Batista are also solid on the whole, and Rachel Bay Jones and Michael K. Williams bring some human touches to their functional roles.

Although it does not surpass other notable chess drama films such as “Searching for Bobby Fischer” (1993) or “Fresh” (1994), “Critical Thinking” is a well-made chess drama film which has enough personality and substance, and I particularly appreciated its vivid urban atmosphere accompanied with cultural/ethnical details. As pointed out in the middle of the film, there is indeed the need for more positive representations of colored people out there in the American society, and I think Leguizamo accomplishes his mission as well as intended.

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