Eugenio Derbez Stars In Heartfelt But Flawed Teaching Drama [Sundance]

Jan 30, 2023

While introducing “Radical,” director Christopher Zalla (“Sangre de Mi Sangre”/”Blood of My Blood”) said it was a labor of love. In addition to that, he said it’s a “movie about what happens when kids are empowered.” And while the film definitely explores this in a well-crafted display of filmmaking, it also leaves a bit of a dark shadow in the minds of those allergic to the notion that your mind is all you need to succeed. Especially in a world that is designed to keep certain people down. 
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To really lay out the stakes and environment “Radical” takes place in, the movie starts off with a child trying to wheel his senile grandmother through a dirt road while a gang rambles in the background. They grow closer and closer, but the boy is spared thanks to a teen on a bike, who we meet more of later. However, it’s not before he has to see the gang pulling two boys in chains by the neck attached to their truck. It’s jarring and violent, something that the kids we meet are unfortunately used to. 
Based on a true story, Eugenio Derbez plays Mr. Sergio Juárez, the newest teacher at José Urbina López Elementary in Matamoros, Mexico, in 2011. He was hired at the last minute to teach sixth grade at this underfunded school that bases its core on the foundation of obedience and punishment. But before the audience — and his soon-to-be new students — even meet Mr. Juárez, the leading children of the film are introduced. 
There’s Nico (Danilo Guardiola), brother to the dirt bike-riding teen from the beginning. He seems a bit lost and small in his brother’s presence, but Nico later shows he’s actually a bit of a class clown who doesn’t plan on staying in school for more than a week longer. The movie then introduces Paloma (Jennifer Trejo) scavenging through a hill of trash, something her father and her do to earn money for metal. The hobby shows how resourceful she is, but it gives the mean girls teasing fuel. And lastly, little Lupe (Mia Fernanda Solis) comes on the scene, taking charge like she owns her house even though she’s not too much taller than her younger siblings. She takes on a role that many eldest daughters in Mexican households know well; a stern-yet-loving caretaker who yells out reminders and completes tasks for both her siblings and parents. 
The director of the school (Daniel Haddad) reveals early on in the movie that the sixth graders at José Urbina López Elementary have some of the worst test scores in Mexico, and half have already dropped out. But this school year is different because Mr. Juárez’s teaching approach is unorthodox, to say the least. The kids first walk into his classroom while he’s on the floor, excitedly yelling about how the flipped-over desks are boats and the floor is the ocean. They have to hurry up and get on the boats or they’ll all drown, he says. He’s animated and imaginative, but the kids are used to fearing the authority figures at the school and don’t move to partake in his exercise. It makes for a funny scene, with Mr. Juárez trying his hardest to get the kids to crack a smile and participate in his enthusiastic lesson, but with discipline and training so harsh, it makes sense that it takes a bit. 
However, once Mr. Juárez does get through to the kids — by throwing out rules, promising not to fail them by giving them all 10s, so they’re not afraid to get something wrong, and by encouraging them to figure out answers for themselves — “Radical” shows them start to come out of their shells. While it’s common for kids to not, particularly like school, these kids end up doing research outside of the classroom, passionately coming up with science projects, and thinking up moral and philosophical questions. “Radical” shows the slow yet steady way Mr. Juárez builds his students’ confidence and opens their eyes to how fascinating learning can be. 
This is where the concept of “only you can hold yourself back” comes in, which is kind of the basis of Mr. Juárez’s teaching philosophy. He is passionate about the fact that the kids are immensely smart, and even though Paloma is a “certifiable genius,” all the kids have the potential to rise above their past test scores. Mr. Juárez is using his teaching technique to not only get these kids invested in learning but also encourage them that they can be whatever they want to be. He tells Lupe that she could be a philosopher, which leads her to some really earth-shattering revelations for a six-grader. He notices how smart Paloma is and finds a space camp she can go to, so she can one day reach her dream of being an aerospace engineer and then an astronaut. 
This idea that if you work hard and have the will to succeed, you can achieve your goals is prevalent in both American and Mexican cultures, just in different fonts. And in any way, its taught; it’s superficial. This way of thinking doesn’t look at the systemic ways kids are held back or impacted by their socioeconomic status, where they live or the resources they have. It is true that kids in these conditions benefit from someone believing in them and watching out for them. And this “Radical” is a moving story about how to empower kids in these environments. And Sergio isn’t naive; he obviously understands the plight of his students. However, the concept this movie hinges on is, at times, a bit too simple and not the reality for so many children. 
There are moments in “Radical” that toe the line of trauma porn, and the movie is very engaging in a way it knows white audiences will eat up. But that’s not to take away from the fact that, yes, towns like this do exist, and kids do have these lives. So while it does have its faults, Zalla’s writing and directing achieve what it sets out to do. It’s an inspiring story with several moments of euphoria and joy that is more than palpable for the audience. “Radical” is very well cast, and the children are endearing in a way that you, of course, have to root for them, making it so much worse when tragedy strikes. Having redeeming characters who you can connect with and have empathy for in two hours’ time is a triumph in and of itself, and the movie succeeds in that ten times over. Just like Mr. Juárez’s main focus and concern is on his kids, “Radical” soars when the spotlight is on them as well, thanks to the heart they bring. 
Mr. Juárez and his sixth graders became known worldwide because Paloma scored the highest in all of Mexico on their standardized test that year. It inspired a Wired article written by Joshua Davis, now a producer on “Radical.” So, yes, some of Sergio’s philosophies of succeeding because you want to pay off. And to its credit, the movie doesn’t show an idealized ending for everyone. There’s a death that rocks their little community, plus Lupe doesn’t get to pursue her newfound love for philosophy and her desire to become a teacher. She has to stay home and drop out to take care of her new baby brother while both her parents work. So even though Paloma’s father allowed her to finally have ambitions that went somewhere, the audience can’t fully escape her words to Mr. Juárez: “reality is reality.”
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