Movie Review: “Brooklyn Castle”

Movie Review: "Rampart," Woody's busted Oscar bidEditing, knowing what to winnow out, is every bit as important in documentary films as it is in novels, where Hemingway advised us to be ruthless thinning the ranks of our “little darlings.”

“Brooklyn Castle” is an overlong but engaging look at a Brooklyn middle school, Intermediate School 318, where disadvantaged sixth, seventh and eighth graders have ruled the roost among America’s chess playing middle schools for 20 years.

Filmmaker Katie Dellamaggiore follows a number of children from the school, adding new “characters,” even in the film’s last third. She introduces us to motivated, talented children of African and Latin American immigrant families, and native born kids with an aptitude this school is uniquely prepared to develop and exploit. We meet the parents who are just as engaged in their childrens’ futures.

And we are introduced to Ms Vicary, the teacher-coach, and Mr Galvin, the assistant principal/coach, who have turned the “chess nerds” into popular, heroic role models in what is obvously a great inner city public school.

There’s the gregarious Pobo, team captain, cheerleader, a great chess player who envisions his career in politics starting with winning school president. The pragmatic Alexis tries to keep it all in balance, fretting over a Plan B for his life in case chess glory doesn’t lead to law school. Rochelle wants to be the first female African American grand master at chess.

The dreadlocked Justus is a prodigy who finds the competition stiffer when he hits middle school.

And Patrick, the one white kid profiled, sees his long climb up the chess ladder as a means of combating his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. “It helps me concentrate.”

Having so many people to follow, Dellamaggiore doesn’t get too deep into anybody’s life. We don’t hear about the long-term impact this middle school fixation has had on past students and only get a hint of how active the parents are in this program, always on the cutting board when hard times hit the economy.

But the director never goes far wrong when she just hangs with the kids, focusing on their focus, capturing their disappointment at losses and the thrill of each victory on the board.

“How’d you get down two pawns?” one boy asks another, comforting him after a loss.

Even with banners and trophies decorating the halls of I.S. 318, even with a documentary showing how cool it is to have kids challenged and motivated intellectually instead of athletically, “Brooklyn Castle” won’t overthrow the tyranny of jocks over geeks in America’s schools. But  Dellamaggiore does a pretty good job of letting parents, and their kids, dream of that day.

MPAA Rating: unrated, with a single word of profanity

Cast: The chess-playing kids of Brooklyn’s Intermediate School 318

Credits: Directed by Katie Dellamaggiore. A Producers Distribution Agency release.

Running time: 1:41

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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