Critical Thinking is a biographical drama about a Miami Jackson High School teacher and his underdog chess team overcoming the odds to become national champions. Similar in vibe to 1988’s Stand and Deliver or 1998’s Dangerous Minds, Critical Thinking explores the true story struggle of students who, inspired by a passionate teacher, try to achieve something they didn’t think was possible while surviving in the low socio-economic environments they were born into.
This is the second film directed by John Leguizamo (Undefeated), who also stars as the real-life Cuban-American teacher Mario Martinez, and while the runtime was a little long, I found it highly entertaining and inspirational.
Set in 1998, Miami Jackson High School teacher Mario Martinez (John Leguizamo) teaches an elective subject called “Critical Thinking” where students learn the strategies of chess. Martinez imparts his motivational brand of wisdom to his students in his very first scene: “this is going to be eye-opening because what you’ve got is 64 squares, 32 pieces, it doesn’t matter how rich or poor you are, what ivy league school you go (or probably don’t go) to, what prison you hopefully never set foot in, because chess is the great equalizer”.
This perfectly sets the theme for the film while illustrating the reason why he is so passionate about the subject and why he thinks chess is important for his students to learn, given that his class is full of kids not from privileged backgrounds.
While Martinez sees his class as a serious subject with important lessons to impart to his students, the school doesn’t share his views. The school only cares about the attendance numbers of his students and using his class to place troublesome kids. So when the chess team starts to win in competition, the school does not have the money in the budget to send them to the competitions, instead preferring to fund other more popular subjects such as sport. It is up to Martinez and his students to find a way to finance their dream of becoming champions while dealing with the harsh realities of life that these students must live with outside the school grounds.
What makes Critical Thinking so enjoyable is the solid acting from all the cast. John Leguizamo really stood out for me playing Mario Martinez, the teacher I wish I had in high school. He expertly conveys a man who, despite having his own personal problems and loss, can inspire and motivate his students with his contagious passion coupled with the ability to relate to and communicate with the pupils whose lives he genuinely wants to make a positive change on. His sincere and genuine performance is further enhanced by the fantastic chemistry he has with the talented actors who make up the students of this class – particularly the students in the chess team who he spends the most screen time with.
The brotherhood and camaraderie between chess teammates Sedrick Rountree (Corwin C. Tuggles), Ito Paniangua (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), Rodelay Medina (Angel Bismark Curiel), Gil Luna (Will Hochman) and Marcel Martinez (Jeffry Batista) are the yin to Leguizamo’s yang. They work so well together that you feel like these men have really shared life experiences together making it easy to emphasize with them. Whether it’s them goofing around in the classroom, enjoying pizza by the pool or providing emotional support when one finds themselves in too deep with a local drug dealer, this team felt authentic in every scenario they found themselves in.
John Leguizamo has done a fantastic job bringing to life a story that could have been really dull if you’re not into chess – especially given the amount of screen time dedicated to teaching strategy and the game of chess actually being played. However the story is well balanced between the goal of this team learning to improve their game with their own personal life struggles such as being born into poor families, having unsupportive parents or living in fear of a drug dealer. While there is an educational element about the game of chess so the audience understands what is happening, the primary focus is actually on the human emotion tied to the ideas of winning, teamwork and proving the status quo wrong.
It’s the teamwork and proving the status quo wrong that Leguizamo has really put to screen well. The passion and tenacity of the characters coupled with showing the competitiveness of chess in the same way you would a sports game, creates a high stakes environment as the students push through their obstacles in order to show the school, their parents and more importantly themselves, that they can become champions.
Although the runtime is a little bit long, Critical Thinking is an inspiring and entertaining movie that I thoroughly enjoyed. What could have been another “overcoming the odds” high school cliche is deftly avoided thanks to John Leguizamo’s excellent directing and acting chops that help make competitive chess a nail-biting experience. With great performances based on the true story of the Miami Jackson High School chess team in 1998, this is a movie that’s sure to inspire some of us to take up the game to help get us through the current pandemic we find ourselves in.