SXSW Review: John Leguizamo’s ‘Critical Thinking’ makes chess inspiring
John Leguizamo continues to create stories that matter; that give a face to underrepresented groups. With his feature directorial debut, (he previously directed the 2003 TV movie Undefeated) Leguizamo dives into the true story of Miami Jackson High School’s Chess Team, an unlikely group of students who went on to win the U.S. National Chess Championship. It’s a story of representation, racial expectations, and most importantly, lots of chess.
If you have never played the game of chess before, Critical Thinking is sure to be a bit confusing. Chess is the central fiber of the film, and any previous experience with the game will be a huge help in your viewing of Leguizamo’s film. Acting as director and supporting actor, Leguizamo plays the real-life Mario Martinez, a teacher who runs a Chess elective course at one of Miami’s inner city high schools. In 1998, for these students, “chess is the great equalizer,” and “white always moves first on the board.”
The kids in the class end up being a hodgepodge of slackers, criminals, and providers, though they’re nearly all overlooked and underseen, two things that are different in the picture Leguizamo paints. Written by Dito Montiel, Critical Thinking hits every beat you’d expect, and rarely goes off-the-rails, trending towards predictable rather than surprising. It doesn’t matter, though, for Leguizamo’s heart and passion is seen constantly, in his own performance and his gentle direction. He wants the best for these teenagers, and it’s clear to see that his intentions couldn’t be of a higher quality.
The kids, played by Corwin Tuggles (Sedrick), Jorge Lendeborg Jr (Ito), Pose‘s Angel Curiel (Rodelay), Will Hochman (Gil), and Jeffry Batista (Marcel), bring the story to life. All of them give committed performances, even if the script doesn’t always keep up with their own emotional capacity. These young men have bought into Leguizamo’s teaching, both on and off the screen, and it shows in their willingness to make chess much more interesting than it is to watch in daily life. Their stories, though somewhat thin on an individual level, are enhanced by the factuality of the story and the inspiring nature of people rising above the expectations society places upon them.
The story follows the boys and their teacher as they win the local, regional, state, and finally national competitions. Their wins are never in doubt as it’s hard to imagine any other scenario, especially if you’ve read the logline for the film. Leguizamo gives inspiring speech after inspiring speech, yet all of them have a sense of reality and genuine nature to them. That’s the movie’s greatest strength: it’s authenticity. The interactions, though melodramatic and predictable, are rooted in fact and in the stories that many minority groups have lived, and Leguizamo’s commitment to highlighting these people gives Critical Thinking a constant tint of hope.
A small role for Michael K. Williams, always solid, gives the film a bit more oomph and Leguizamo’s performance makes a larger difference than you might expect. The chess contests themselves are rarely explained in detail, though it’d be difficult to find the game filmed in a more interesting way. Though nothing feels particularly new in terms of the cinematography or general composition of the film, the story and these young men remain in focus as intended. In terms of high school sports stories, Critical Thinking adds little to the canon. Framed as a true story of young men that defied expectations and chose chess (and togetherness) over much more dangerous options, Leguizamo’s directorial effort is warm, inspiring, and essential for those that rarely see themselves on the big screen.
Critical Thinking was set to debut at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival and is currently without distribution.