Editors' pick

Brooklyn Castle

Brooklyn Castle movie poster
Critic rating:
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MPAA rating: PG
Genre: Documentary
An enlightening documentary about a public middle school chess team in Brooklyn.
Starring: Justus Williams, Rochelle Ballantyne, Pobo Efekoro, Alexis Paredes, Patrick Johnston, Elizabeth Spiegel, John Galvin, Fred Rubino
Director: Katie Dellamaggiore
Running time: 1:41
Release: Opened Oct 19, 2012
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Editorial Review

Kids make all the right moves
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, November 2, 2012

Friday night lights are not nearly as exciting as Saturday morning checkmates at Brooklyn public middle school I.S. 318, which has a consistently acclaimed chess team. It might be surprising to hear, but observing is riveting, too, especially when looking through the lens of the enlightening, inspiring and expertly crafted documentary “Brooklyn Castle.”

While minors often spend their spare time loitering outside convenience stores, camped out in front of Call of Duty or engaging in worrisome alternative activities, this group of kids contemplates complicated gambits. Katie Dellamaggiore’s film is hardly an underdog story; the team has been called the Yankees of academic chess teams. And yet the school’s rise to prominence is noteworthy given that about 65 percent of its students live below the poverty line.

Over the course of a year, the film looks at the lives of a handful of teammates, their families and their coaches to examine, in part, the recipe for such a winning streak. It turns out there are no shortcuts. Workaholic-caliber coaches John Galvin and Elizabeth Vicary and their worker bees practice every day after school and block off Saturdays for tournament play.

One of the film’s great assets is how closely Dellamaggiore appears to follow her subjects. It would be interesting to see how much footage went unused, given the filmmaker’s access during the 2009-10 school year. The camera works its magic in classrooms and apartments, tournament-bound trains and at 4:30 a.m. wake-up calls, school assemblies and decoratively challenged hotel ballrooms lined with game clocks.

Another strong point is the eclectic cast. The serious Rochelle plans to become the first female African American chess master, while Pobo is a boisterous boy who strategizes about his path to the U.S. presidency. Justus is the supposed next big thing who buckles under the pressure of his reputation, while the ADHD-afflicted Patrick aspires to avoid last place.

Middle school, of course, offers countless possibilities for drama, and the film makes powerful use of emotionally heightened stories while, miraculously, steering clear of typical adolescent angst. Matches tend to be suspenseful, though the real nail-biter is the Wall Street meltdown, which jeopardizes the team’s funding. There’s also the matter of placing into a good high school, which is an all-consuming concern for team member Alexis, who wants to attend college and support his parents. Listening to him discuss such realities makes it easy to forget he’s 12 years old.

Although the film starts off fairly bubbly -- to the beats of hip-hop and classical music -- serious elements emerge. This works to a point, though toward the end, the story starts to feel like a slight slog. Luckily, the feeling is fleeting.

The film takes a cue from teacher-coach Vicary: The viewer gets an education while being entertained. Colorful graphics accompany explanations of rankings and how games are scored. At first, it seems like a lot of fun and games, although chess equates to much more. It’s a reason to stay off the streets and a means to attend college through scholarship prizes, which is enough to make audience members want to break out the pompoms and give these kids a cheer.

Contains nothing objectionable.