John Leguizamo makes his directorial debut with “Critical Thinking,” a story of an inner-city chess team fighting stereotypes, gang violence, and more in an effort to win the U.S. National Chess Championship. The film was set to premiere at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival, but due to Covid-19, the film’s theatrical premiere will have to wait which is unfortunate because works of social awareness and inspiration like this need to be seen.
Dito Montiel adapts the true story of a Miami Jackson High School teacher, Mario Martinez (Leguizamo) who leads troubled and misfit teens to this championship. Given little resources which is typically the case for inner-city schools like this, Martinez’ class is the dumping ground for these teens many of whom have less than desirable home lives much less any support from any adult. It’s a bleak environment, but Martinez’ passion and hope shine through, giving these young people a bit of balance and stability.
While the story sounds familiar, and it has been done before in many forms, the brutal honesty in which these students are portrayed has never felt so real. Teaching takes a special person, but in today’s society and the problems of poverty in the inner-city, being a teacher is not for the faint of heart. “Critical Thinking” conveys this expertly within the first 20 minutes as we meet the character we think will be our protagonist. Abruptly, we find this is not the case.
Each of the teens has their own issues and while we delve into each of them, the main focus is on Martinez and his impact upon their lives. Playing chess to many of us is just a pastime or even an enigma for those of us who don’t/can’t play, it becomes a life ring that keeps them all afloat together or as Martinez says, “Chess is the great equalizer.” This concept is put into play at each and every championship match as they are pitted against more prestigious schools. They are certainly the underdog and the prejudices and confidence levels are as palpable as their beating hearts. The tension rises as the stakes become greater, but so, too, do the obstacles. It’s this intensity that connects us even more to the kids and Martinez.
Corwin C. Tuggles portrays Sedrick Roundtree, a complicated young man who shines in this film, leading the group into an emotional final scene. His understanding of this character and the bond he develops with his fellow “students” as well as Leguizamo’s character of Martinez is exceptional. Leguizamo naturally falls into the role of the teacher who understands the plight of these kids and never judges them. We feel his compassion and his hope for these kids to not only survive but to eventually thrive despite their situation. And within all of this, we, too, have hope for the future of these young men who represent a multitude of others struggling in similar situations but perhaps don’t have a Mr. Martinez or chess to guide them.
Leguizamo takes on a heavy task of a lead character as well as director, skillfully navigating the waters to sail smoothly with both. As I watched the film, I wondered if Leguizamo’s portrayal of Martinez was similar to his own skills as director with these young men depicting students. The performances he elicits allow every actor to shine in their own role, all supporting one another much like the story itself.
“Critical Thinking” is an inspiringly uplifting film reminding us of the potential of each and every student out there. Additionally, it punctuates the difficulties and dangers faced by teachers, administrators, and students as they fight an uphill battle to teach and learn. When you see this film, stick around for the credits as we get to meet each of the real characters.
3 1/2 Stars