Eugenio Derbez Is Better Than Ever In This Formulaic But Powerful Teaching Drama [Sundance]

The driving force of “Radical” follows Eugenio Derbez as new teacher Sergio Juarez, who is taking over the sixth grade class at Jose Urbina Lopez Elementary in Matamoros. These students are among the worst performing students in the class, but what else would you expect when the school looks like a rundown prison, their library looks like it’s been totally ransacked, their computers were stolen by criminals, and the money intended to build a new computer lab was snatched by corrupt officials. Even though these aren’t inherently bad kids, the entire school is run with an air of disdain and discipline. None of the teachers are happy to be there, the principal is too aloof to do anything about it (at least for now), and the entire school seems to be engaged in their teaching efforts only in order to get a raise for improving their student’s test scores, even if that means cheating in their preparation.

Of course, Señor Jaurez is about to shake things up with a radical (hey, that’s the title of the movie!) new teaching method. Rather than forcing his students to memorize the facts and formulas needed for government-mandated state tests, he lets them determine what they want to learn. After an enthusiastic problem-solving lesson sparks an interest in boats, a few of the kids become curious about what makes things float on water, especially massive steel ships that seem like they should sink to the bottom of the ocean. Rather than merely giving the students the information, Señor Jaurez (who doesn’t actually have some of the answers himself) waits for the students themselves to theorize answers of their own through discussion and deductive logic. It leads them all around the school, from the library to a trough filled with water outside the school, all in the search of answers to their questions. His approach is so successful that students can’t turn off their curiosity after class is over, and they’re off to the races.

What follows in “Radical” is that spark you always see in movies like this. Kids who otherwise would be lost to a life surrounded by drugs, crime, poverty, and hopelessness suddenly feel curious about the world outside of their dangerous bubble. They realize that there might be a future for them outside of Matamoros. There’s even a genius-level girl named Paloma (Jennifer Trejo) who has kept her dreams of rocket science at bay, and she finally feels like there’s a viable path for her to become an astronaut. Typically, this kind of storyline deals with teenagers, who often dabble in more questionable behavior as they experience puberty and get closer to adulthood. But what makes “Radical” resonate even more is the young age of the kids in question.

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