Review: Uplifting ‘Brooklyn Castle’ Will Take Your Heart

Editor’s note: With SXSW Audience Award winner Brooklyn Castle hitting limited release, here is a re-run of our festival review, originally published on March 15, 2012.

Why do we like to watch documentaries? Most of us enjoy seeing an uplifting story, but so many of the documentaries I’ve seen at film festivals are about depressing subject matters. Yet, they usually share a common feeling of hope at the end – that things can change, tides can turn, and people can make a difference. Every good documentary sheds light on a subject that people may have zero familiarity with, but when they walk out of that theater, they’ll be aware and hopefully…hopeful.

Brooklyn Castle is one of those movies. While it partially devolves into a harsh look at the current state of public education in New York City and around the country near the end, it’s a heartwarming look at the exact reason why we need to fund after-school programs and give more attention to the arts. Which yes, includes playing games. Chess, to be exact. Inspired by a 2007 New York Times article about a teenager who was skipping class to master chess, director Katie Dellamaggiore found out about I.S. 318 in New York City, and learned that they had been winning championships across the country ever since the chess group was formed in 2006. But, thanks to the current economy, they were facing budget cuts and setbacks. Armed with a camera, she followed their chess team and put together this film.

Chess is a fairly daunting subject. If you’ve never played it before, then you’ll have to realize that it’s one of the most complex games ever invented. According to the Shannon Number, there are more possible games of chess than there are atoms in the universe, which is pretty amazing for what is essentially a board game. And these junior high students understand it better than most of the people on the planet.

The film follows several of the school’s standout chess players, who all come from I.S. 318, a school that has a majority of students below the poverty level. There are several of these standouts, among them Rochelle, Pobo, Justus, Alexis, and Patrick, and each one of them has a different story. Rochelle is an attractive girl who worries that chess might be too nerdy, but continues to play. Pobo, a popular student who plays amazing chess, but who is his own worst critic (and arguably the most charismatic character in the film). Justus, an 11-year old student with a 2100 chess ranking who faces a lot of adjustment after transferring in. Alexis, a son of immigrant parents who want nothing more than for him to succeed and go to college. And Patrick, a boy who struggles with ADHD and desperately want to become good at chess.

Dellamaggiore and her team masterfully follow the team through trials and tribulations both at the school and on the road at chess tournaments, and you really get to know these students and feel for them. And you feel for the school as well, taking in the aches and pains when their budget is continually cut. You can’t help but want to reach into your own pocket to make sure these kids keep playing chess.

It’s never really explained why this particular school has such an amazing chess program, especially since the teachers aren’t given too much attention, but you won’t really care about that since this story belongs to the kids. You’ll come out of Brooklyn Castle feeling positive and wanting to play chess. Or at least watch Searching For Bobby Fischer again.

Hollywood is interested in this story as well, as Dellamaggiore told us that producer Scott Rudin and Sony Pictures have optioned the remake rights for the story. Hopefully they’ll kick in some money to I.S. 318 as well.

The Upside: Chess is an accredited class at I.S. 318, and the team has holds 28 National Chess Championship titles – more than any other junior high school in the country. Assistant principal and chess coach John Galvin used $8,000 of his own money to finance the team’s trip to the National in Dallas, Texas in 2011.

The Downside: Schools across the nation are losing their funding, and in 2009 their budget was cut by $1.3m. They’ve had to resort to bake sales and walk-a-thons to try and raise money to get these kids to the competitions.

On the Side: The earliest recorded appearance of chess is in the year 600 in the Persian Empire. Making it one of the oldest games on the planet. Take that, Monopoly.

Grade: A-

I was raised in the Metroplex of Dallas/Fort Worth, and fled at the age of 18 to Austin, Texas, where I was inundated with a whirlwind of new pop culture experiences by mainlining movies, television, and video games. I now live on the fringe of Los Angeles and work at Riot Games.

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