Brooklyn Castle

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 11/29/12 15:28:17

"Well worth checking out! (there's the obligatory chess pun out of the way)"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Chess isn't the only noteworthy extracurricular at Brooklyn's Intermediate School 318 - principal Fred Rubino mentions that marching band and other activities may also have funding issues in one scene of "Brooklyn Castle" - but the students there are remarkably accomplished at it, having won (as of the time of filming) 57 school, grade-level, and individual trophies since the program began a dozen or so years earlier, and they send dozens of students to tournaments to which schools that don't have sixty percent of their students living below the poverty line only send a handful. That's a bunch of kids with interesting stories that make for a pretty good movie.

The documentary doesn't focus on the whole team, of course, but about a half-dozen students: Rochelle, about to enter high school and on track to become the first black female to attain a "master" rating; Pobo, a gregarious kid and natural leader also involved in student government; Alexis, the son of South American immigrants worried about which high school he'll be accepted to; Justus, a soft-spoken prodigy with confidence issues; James, a much more outgoing sixth-grader with similar talent; and Patrick, a kid with ADHD and an uphill climb to make the travel team. Time is also spent with their families and teachers.

Here's something to ponder - if you made Brooklyn Castle about the marching band, or the swim team, or some other activity, you could make a great many of the same points but get different reactions from the audience. The movie is not, as one might assure potential audience members, "about chess", but chess might seem a particularly worthy activity to viewers, since it seems closer to academics than most of the others. One of the interesting ideas lurking around the edges, though, is that this is not necessarily the case: The kids fill their schedule with up to seven chess classes per week and are just as nervous about placement tests as any student. Rochelle's mother, though supportive, points out that regular schoolwork must come first.

That chess is in many ways more similar to other after-school activities than it is different is by no means a negative, of course. If there's a specific message to this movie, it's that what schools offer outside the curriculum is also very important to students - especially when so much of the time in the classroom is devoted less to giving kids a broad range of knowledge but preparing them for the assessment tests that will determine what they can do for the next four years. As Rubino and assistant principal/coach John Galvin point out, it's good for kids to travel and get some idea of the world outside their neighborhood, or have a chance to discover what they're good at. It's an intangible benefit, but by the time the school is threatened with a massive budget cut toward the end, director Katie Dellamaggiore and company have made this clear.

She does this by keeping the focus squarely on her subjects; ignoring any temptation to make chess metaphors or explain the game and its strategy to the audience. There's some information that can be absorbed by osmosis; scenes with teacher Elizabeth Vicary tutoring Patrick, for instance, are interesting mostly for how she engages him, but those who know the game a bit can get something out of it, too. She spends a bit of time on the rating scale for chess players, too, which is handy for understanding the kids' goals.

There a great bunch of kids, too, and Dellamaggiore lets the audience build relationships with them. Rochelle's story separates from the others fairly early - she graduates to high school as Justus and James (and maybe Patrick) enter junior high - but it's interesting, with tutors who are naturally mainly interested in chess and her mother pulling in separate directions. It's probably not too hard to get good material from her and other outgoing kids like Pobo and James, and to a lesser extent the nice but more reserved Alexis and Patrick. That she works so well with Justus is particularly impressive; he's fairly introverted and doesn't talk to anyone, much less the camera very much (though that's not a problem for his mother!), so piecing his story together must be a bit more challenging.

But worthwhile. Stories like "Brooklyn Castle" can be found in most school districts - at least the part with the painful budget cuts. It's a shame, because kids should have a chance to find excellence, even if not quite on the scale that these do.

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