John Leguizamo makes his feature film directorial debut with Critical Thinking, a classroom drama based on the true 1998-set story of the first inner city high school chess team to win the National Chess Championship. At the outset, the film may seem like just another clichéd offering in this well-trodden genre, but to dismiss or underestimate it on that basis would be a mistake. Critical Thinking does for this thematic staple what Stand and Deliver and Lean on Me did for it in the late 1980s. Although taking place more than 20 years ago, the film has a contemporary sensibility and brings realistic dimensions to its primary characters, making their victories even more meaningful for current audiences.
The script by Dito Montiel (A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints) is solid, and Leguizamo, who not only directs and produces but also stars as the unconventional teacher and champion for these kids, is perfect at the helm. He has the cred and the charisma to inspire his young cast and viewers alike, the technical and aesthetic sensibility to choreograph chess tournaments with energy to spare, plus a heart-centered spirit that makes the entire film accessible and uplifting.
Leguizamo wisely dials back his own performance while extracting powerful turns from his relatively unknown ensemble players, each of whom brings distinct elements to the group. Of particular note are Jorge Lendeborg Jr. (Love, Simon) and Corwin Tuggles. If Hollywood has any smarts, we’ll hopefully see more from all of them.
The film suffers from some minor pacing issues and a couple of underdeveloped subcharacters, but these are minor infractions. There’s no way Montiel and Leguizamo could avoid all the trappings of a classic underdog story, but they manage to avoid cloying and manipulative choices while still leaving audiences cheering.
Made two years ago, it’s unfortunate that Critical Thinking didn’t get a theatrical release, but its timing on the home-viewing front couldn’t be better. With the challenges facing our nation, a true story with this much heart can do a country good. You don’t have to be a chess player to know Critical Thinking makes all the right moves.
Available to rent starting Sept. 11 via grailmoviehouse.com