Teaching is a noble profession. Hell, I do it on occasion, so while I’m far from the hero that films have depicted, but I’ve seen actual ones in action. So, a good teacher has a power that few possess. Of course, that means that movies have long been fascinated by them. Playing at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, Radical is another entry into that genre. While it does nothing particularly original, it does what it does well enough to be worth a passing grade.
Radical is exactly the film that you think it is. It’s heartfelt, follows a well-worn path, and leaves you with a warm feeling on the inside. If it hadn’t been done as competently as it’s done in this case, you’d take it more to task for a lack of originality. However, in telling this true story, the movie knows the beats to follow and follows them effectively.
Set in the Mexican border town of Matamoros, which is lacking in both hope and resources, we follow Sergio (Eugenio Derbez), a new teacher willing to try a radical new method in the classroom. His hope is that by not doing what has consistently failed in the past, he’ll unlock something special in his students.
Of course, the sixth grade students at Jose Urbina Lopez Elementary aren’t instant success. Hell, Sergio may well be in over his head. Yet, despite a lack of support, something is brewing. At the same time, the corruption and violence in Matamoros is always lurking around every corner, threatening tragedy on a daily basis. This being a true story, it’s no surprise where things are going, but the end result is still effectively uplifting.
Eugenio Derbez made a real impression with CODA, and here he’s even better. He plays a more grounded character in Radical, focusing on how doing things just a bit differently can pay off. It’s focused and engaging, whether he’s touching hearts or inspiring minds. The flick wouldn’t have been the same without him. Supporting players include Danilo Guardiola, Daniel Haddad, Mia Fernanda Solis, Jennifer Trejo, and more, though Derbez is the main attraction
Writer/director Christopher Zalla sticks to what works in Radical. Adapting the article that provided the source material, it’s almost paint by numbers, but with a focus less on cliches and more on the moments that you remember in something of this ilk. There’s not much style, but there’s plenty of competence. Plus, Zalla was smart enough to cast Derbez, and that really is the great success on display here.
Radical doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it does the inspirational teacher story well. Sundance has had these before, and it will have these again, but that takes nothing away from this being a good film. If it never has the ambition to become a great one, well, that’s another story. At the end of the day, the movie is often lovely, and that’s something worth celebrating.