Daniel Haddad, drama, Ermis Cruz, Eugenio Derbez, film festivals, Gilberto Barraza, Jennifer Trejo, Mia Fernanda Solis, movies, Radical, reviews, Sundance, Sundance Film Festival, Victor Estrada, Viridiana Lopez
November 10, 2023
by Carla Hay
Directed by Christopher Zalla
Spanish with subtitles
Culture Representation: Taking place in 2011, in Matamoros, Mexico, the dramatic film “Radical” (based on a true story) features an all-Latin cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: A charismatic teacher uses unconventional methods to transform a primary school where more than half of the students fail or drop out.
Culture Audience: “Radical” will appeal primarily to people who like watching “against all odds” stories about teachers who make a difference in the lives of troubled or underestimated students.
“Radical” tells an impactful story about how inspiration can be found in unorthodox ways. Credible performances elevate this drama, which is based on real people—even when there’s a familiar formula about a charismatic teacher who changes students’ lives. There’s enough grit in “Radical” to prevent it from being an overly sentimental story. “Radical” had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Festival Favorite Award, a prize voted for by the festival’s audiences.
Written and directed by Christopher Zalla, “Radical” has a screenplay adapted from Joshua Davis’ 2013 Wired magazine article “A Radical Way of Unleashing a Generation of Geniuses.” There have been plenty of movies and TV shows about schoolteachers who shake up a problem-plagued school to make vast improvements in the classes that they are teaching, but Latin/Hispanic people are rarely at the center of these stories. “Radical” focuses entirely on people in Mexico and keeps the language in Spanish.
“Radical” takes place in 2011, in a crime-ridden and low-income part of Matamoros, Mexico. The main location in the story is Escuela Primaria José Urbina Lopez (José Urbina Lopez Primary School), a public school where more than half of the students are dropping out or failing in the beginning of the movie. The school is ranked last in Mexico’s ENLACE (Engaging Latin Communities for Education) test scores, a standard national exam in math, science and Spanish required for all students in third, fourth, fifth, sixth, ninth and 12th grades.
A new teacher has arrived at the school on short notice to replace a teacher named Mrs. Alvarez, who was out on maternity leave and has decided to quit to become a full-time mother. The new teacher is Sergio Juárez Correa (played by Eugenio Derbez), who makes an unforgettable first impression on his students o his first day of teaching at the school: He has overturned all the tables and chairs in the classroom. Sergio then tells the students (whose ages are about 11 and 12) to pretend that the room is an ocean, and the tables and chairs are boats.
Sergio pretends to drown, while the confused students stare at him. What the students don’t know yet but will soon find out is that this is Sergio’s way of teaching them about the physics of floating in water. He enthusiastically takes them to the school library, but when Sergio finds out that this underfunded school has outdated encyclopedias, decides to teach his students math and science in ways that don’t require books.
His first goal in the physics lesson is to motivate the students to get the correct answer to ths question: If two people (one fat, one muscular) who weighed the same were in the water, who would float better? You can easily guess what happens next when there’s a hot-tub-sized crate on the school property.
The school’s principal, whose name is only revealed as Chucho (played by Daniel Haddad), sees himself as a traditional disciplinarian. Chucho is taken aback and skeptical of Sergio’s unusual teaching methods. Sergio is frustrated by Chucho’s somewhat overbearing attitude and the underfunded school’s lack of resources. (The school’s only computer is in Chucho’s office.) It should come as no surprise that Sergio and Chucho have clashes, but their uneasy working relationship eventually evolves into a respectful friendship.
Sergio has several students, but three get the focus in this movie: brainy Paloma Novola (played by Jennifer Trejo), fun-loving Nico (played by Danilo Guardiola) and shy Lupe (played by Mía Fernanda Solís). All three of these students face obstacles from people in their lives who discourage them from graduating or getting a good education. Sergio somewhat acts like he wants to rescue them, but even he knows there are limitations on how much a teacher can get involved in the personal lives of his students.
Paloma is the smartest student in Sergio’s class, when it comes to math and science. She’s also one of the financially poorest students in the school and gets bullied by some of the students because of her poverty. Paloma lives near a garbage dump with her single father (played by Gilberto Barraza), who doesn’t have a name in the movie and who makes money by recycling trash. Her father discourages Paloma dream of becoming an aerospace engineer, because he thinks she shouldn’t get her hopes up too much from what to expect out of life. He even goes as far to burn the science magazines that Paloma has been reading.
Nico has a crush on Paloma and is insecure about showing her how he feels, because he thinks Paloma is too smart for him. There are a few endearing scenes where Nico seeks advice from Sergio on how to talk to a girl he likes. Sergio immediately knows that Nico is talking about Paloma. Nico’s education obstacle is that his older brother Chepe (played by Victor Estrada) is in a violent, drug-dealing gang that wants Nico to drop out of school and join the gang. The gang has already been using Nico to smuggle drugs.
Lupe has an interest and talent in philosophy. She loves to read. However, when she goes to a library to ask for certain academic books, a librarian tells her she’s too young to be reading these books. Eventually, a kind librarian gives Lupe the books she’s looking for, but Lupe’s biggest education obstacle comes from her own parents (played by Ermis Cruz and Viridiana López), who don’t have names in the movie. Lupe is in a large family that’s struggling financially. Lupe’s mother has gotten a new job with daytime work hours, and she expects Lupe to quit school to look after Lupe’s younger brother, who’s too young to go to school.
As for Sergio, who is he and what’s his story? The movie shows briefly that he’s married and has a baby son. And there are hints that Sergio has had a troubled past that has to do with his mental health. Things happen in the movie that test Sergio and his willingness to help his students thrive when getting pushback from many doubters and naysayers. Some of what happens takes a toll on his mental health and emotions.
“Radical” hits many of the same beats that movies have about a special teacher who transforms the minds and attitudes of students whose parents or communities have given up on them. Derbez (who is one of the producers of “Radical”) gives a magnetic performance that is a combination of Sergio being eccentric but relatable.
Sergio enthusiasm for teaching goes beyond wanting his students to get high test scores. It’s about changing the way they look at life and giving them the confidence to believe that they can accomplish things that other people say that they can’t. As time goes on, it’s obvious that Sergio understands his students because he’s gotten the same negative attitudes from his teaching peers and supervisors.
Guardiola and Trejo are also very good in their roles as Nico and Paloma, who start to see themselves as the individuals they are all instead of what other people in their lives expect them to be. Sergio obviously gives them encouragement to pursue their dreams, but the movie shows that Sergio alone isn’t responsible for the development of Nico and Paloma, since a lot of their personal growth comes from within themselves.
“Radical” isn’t a preachy movie about a know-it-all teacher. Sergio has moments of self-doubt and isn’t afraid to admit to his students when he doesn’t have all the answers to their questions. The biggest lesson that Sergio teaches these students are those that they can apply in and out of the classroom: Be curious, be bold in trying new things, and be yourself.
Pantelion and Participant released “Radical” in U.S. cinemas on November 3, 2023.