“Brooklyn Castle” is a can’t-miss film that doesn’t. It’s a wonderful documentary look at an astonishingly successful public-school chess program that manages to be more moving and heartening than you expect. Which is saying a lot.
That team comes from I.S. 318, a junior high school in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn where more than 65% of the students come from homes whose incomes are below the federal poverty line. Yet over a multi-year period, the school has won 26 national chess titles, more than any other junior high in the country.
As directed by Katie Dellamaggiore, “Brooklyn Castle” is the latest in a welcome genre of films that focus on compelling kids in competitive situations, whether it be spelling (“Spellbound”), ballroom dancing (“Mad Hot Ballroom”) or ballet (“First Position”).
What makes “Brooklyn Castle” stand out is the way it focuses just as much on the children as the chess, showing these young people negotiating the multiple up-and-down complexities of their lives — including parental expectations and a staggering school budget crisis — all the while engaging in the serious business of becoming their own people.
It also shows — and these are no small things — how much children can thrive if they work hard and are believed in and encouraged, and how much humble public schools can accomplish with their students if proper funding is not an issue.
Since detailing the reasons why any particular chess match was decided would be too arcane for most viewers, “Brooklyn Castle” focuses instead on who wins and who loses and what that outcome means for the team and the individual involved.
The documentary begins at a rare disappointment for I.S. 318, a second place finish in the junior high division of the U.S. Chess Federation supernationals in April 2009.
This will be the last tournament for the team’s top-rated player, 13-year-old eighth-grader Rochelle Ballantyne, who enjoys the fact that she can beat the boys but is really looking forward to starting high school at elite Brooklyn Tech. Always on Rochelle’s mind as well is her real chance, if she keeps playing seriously, of becoming the first female African American chess master.
When school reconvenes in the fall of 2009, two of Rochelle’s teammates return as eighth-graders: serious Alexis Paredes, whose emotional mother so wants the best for him, and effusive Pobo Efekoro, a confident enthusiast whose Nigerian family is dealing with the death of his bread-winner father. Joining them is Justus Williams, an 11-year-old prodigy coming in all the way from the Bronx.
“Brooklyn Castle” makes clear that a key reason the I.S. 318 team flourishes is the commitment and skill of the school personnel involved, including veteran assistant principal and coach John Galvin, and Elizabeth Vicary, a passionate chess teacher whose class the kids can take up to seven times a week.
The film accompanies the chess team through an academic year, a period where the kids have to deal with personal crises as well as institutional ones. Alexis worries about the highly competitive test he needs to pass to get into his high school of choice, Pobo decides to run for student body president, and Justus has to learn to lose without falling apart.
As if this weren’t enough, the real world throws the team and the school a curve when the national fiscal crisis leads to several rounds of New York City budget cuts that threaten the program’s existence and the team’s essential ability to travel to tournaments.
Likely because Rochelle is such a charismatic figure, “Brooklyn Castle” stays with her too as she tries to balance her mother’s insistence that schoolwork comes first with her continuing passion for chess.
Director Dellamaggiore, whose team includes brother and cinematographer Brian Schulz and husband and editor Nelson Dellamaggiore, is at pains to emphasize that the chess players are not some rarefied species but real kids who like to laugh and goof around and are not too old to cry when things go badly. The film also spends time with one of the team’s lesser players, Patrick Johnston, who sticks with the game though his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder makes concentrating difficult.
The director’s empathy for her subjects makes it clear how much everyone gets out of this kind of participation. There are so many possible chess moves in a given situation, Elizabeth Vicary explains, that “the truth isn’t quite so simple, the answers are not clear to anybody. They have to negotiate this on their own.”
“Brooklyn Castle” makes it positively heady to be there as they do.
MPAA rating: Not rated
Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes
Playing: At Landmark, West Los Angeles; Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Town Center 5, Encino; University Town Center 6, Irvine