Saturday 10 December 2022

Movie Review: Critical Thinking (2020)

A chess drama, Critical Thinking is well-intentioned and decently engaging, but never threatens to rise above familiar underdog territory.

At the Miami Jackson inner-city high school, Mario Martinez (John Leguizamo) teaches a "critical thinking" elective, which is essentially a chess club. Despite minimal financial support from the school, Mario cobbles together a winning multi-ethnic team consisting of Ito, Rod, Gil, and Sedrick. They are later joined by Marcel, a recent arrivee from Cuba.

Some of the boys have troubled home lives, with Ito being drawn into the orbit of an intimidating drug dealer, and Sedrick verbally abused by a depressed father (Michael K. Williams). Nevertheless, Mario and the team scratch together travel funds and embark on a winning run at the regional and state levels to reach the national chess high school tournament.

Based on a true story and directed by Leguizamo, Critical Thinking continues the long-running tradition of a good teacher helping disadvantaged school kids rise above. The film delivers exactly what can be expected in terms of mixing tough backstories with inspirational pathways to better futures, which also means it could have been made any time in the past 50 years. Leguizamo's directing is more steady than flashy, although on-screen he appears to be trying too hard. The supporting cast of relative unknowns is adequate.

The mental jousting of chess is never easy to capture visually, but Leguizamo cares to cover the basics plus some of the game's intricacies, and the portrayed board positions appear realistic. Surprisingly missing is how the teacher Mario helps the kids become better chess players - they just seem to be naturally gifted. As the narrative progresses, routine scenes of tournament play mingle with clunkier classroom sessions and the boys dealing with personal issues. Joy is found in the simple pleasures of away-from-home success, including modest restaurant meals and nights spent bonding around cheap motel swimming pools. 

The travails of Ito falling into the street corner drug trade and Sedrick receiving the brunt of his widowed father's anger constitute micro-stories and round-out the characters as simple depth mechanisms, but also pad the running time towards the two hour mark. Critical Thinking is predictably competent and comfortably predictable.

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