Producers: Ben Odell, Eugenio Derbez and Joshua Davis  Director: Christopher Zalla   Screenplay: Christopher Zalla   Cast: Eugenio Derbez, Daniel Haddad, Gilberto Barraza, Jennifer Trejo, Mia Fernandez Solis, Danilo Guardiola Escobar, Victor Estrada, Enoc Leaño and Manuel Cruz Vivas   Distributor: Pantelion Films/Participant Media

Grade: B

It’s been a while since we had an old-fashioned, fact-based movie about an inspirational teacher who encourages youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds in underfinanced schools to overcome the obstacles an unfeeling society has put in their way and thrive intellectually.  Writer-director Christopher Zalla answers the need nicely with this uplifting tale of Sergio Juárez Correa, an energetic fellow who brought innovative methods to his class at José Urbina López elementary school in Matamoros, a dusty, crime-ridden Mexican border town, in 2011-2012.  Zalla’s screenplay is based on Joshua Davis’ article “A Radical Way of Unleashing a Generation of Geniuses,” which appeared in Wired in 2013, but as fashioned for the screen it follows the well-worn template of such fondly remembered films as “Stand and Deliver.”  It just does so in a disarmingly earnest way.

Eugenio Derbez, who played a similarly enlightened classroom presence in “CODA,” stars as Juárez Correa, who arrives at the school—deemed one of the most hopeless in the country, with a faculty whose apathy is matched by the students—after despairing about having an impact even at better funded, safer campuses.  He’s read about teaching methods that set aside rote instruction to challenge students to think for themselves by appealing to their innate curiosity about things, and wants to test them in which seems the most unpromising of places; it’s a project that could be as much a means of salvation for him, as a disillusioned teacher, as for his charges, whose prospects in life are totally grim.

Naturally he meets initial resistance from his new colleagues, who just want to keep order and get by, and Principal Chucho (Daniel Haddad).  He’s also disappointed to find that the computer lab, which he’d planned to use as an integral part of his plan, isn’t a reality but an illusion, the equipment never installed because of bureaucratic corruption.  And his students—those who actually come, only to be locked inside the gates to prevent gangs from invading the place—initially find his attempts to broaden their horizons by posing questions designed to force them to think outside the officially mandated curricular box to be more outlandish than instructive. 

Gradually they come around, however, as his enthusiasm draws them into his semi-theatrical experiments in learning.  The script focuses on three of them. Paloma (Jennifer Trejo) is a somewhat withdrawn girl who lives with her sickly father (Gilberto Barraza), a scrap collector, in a shack next to the city dump.  But she proves to have impressive mathematical and engineering skills, using bits and pieces of the discarded metal to build a telescope; Sergio thinks that she should apply for a scholarship program with an aerospace firm, but her father resists putting such ideas in her head.  Nico (Danilo Guardiola Escobar) is infatuated with Paloma (and Juárez Correa suggests that he earn points with her by serving as a conduit to get her information on that scholarship), but he’s planning to drop out to join his brother Chepe (Victor Estrada) as a courier in a drug-running gang; he has second thoughts about staying in school, though, when one of Sergio’s invigorating class projects, on the displacement of water, piques his interest.  And Lupe (Mia Fernandez Solis) is a shy girl in whom Juárez Correa detects an interest in philosophical issues; she follows up by seeking books on the subject at the university library, but the demands of caring for her younger siblings—and her mother is pregnant again—make it unclear that she’ll even be able to stay in school.

As the three cases indicate, Juárez Correa may be successful in reaching his students’ potential, but social and familial realities might stymie its realization.  And there are other obstacles.  Principal Chucho is won over when he sees the impact Sergio’s methods are having on the students, but despite his support, the corrupt political bureaucracy remains implacable, and becomes even more so when the impetuous teacher confronts it head-on.  A tragedy affecting one of the students naturally deflates his sense of purpose, and toward the close of the school year his very presence in the classroom is put in doubt.  The culmination of all his efforts comes with an annual standardized test that one of his colleagues attempts to circumvent by cheating; will Juárez Correa’s kids, who haven’t been “taught the test,” score well on it?  An impassioned pep talk might do the trick, mightn’t it?

But though the movie rather shamelessly embraces every cliché of the genre, it justifies its formulaic character with terrific performances—not only by an energized, committed Derbez, but by Haddad, Trejo, Escobar and Solis as well—and by the powerful sense of a place devastated by poverty and violence achieved by production designer Juan Santiso, costumer Lupita Peckinpah and cinematographer Mateo Londoño.  And while Eugenio Richer’s editing allows the film to run well over two hours, which for a tale like this is rather overlong, the sense of realism over simplistic triumph largely justifies the expansiveness.  The score by Pascual Reyes and Juan Pablo Villa reinforces the deep melancholy coexisting with the prospect of success.                         

As a film, “Radical” certainly isn’t—it’s a crowd-pleaser of the old school, which unapologetically embraces the tropes of the inspirational-teacher genre.  But its sincerity in preaching hope where none seems possible will probably win you over.