Reel Reviews | Radical (Sundance ’23)

By Charles Kirkland Jr.

A discouraged principal at one of the worst-performing elementary schools in Matamoros, Mexico fills a hole in his teaching staff with a teacher whose style is nothing short of, Radical.

When disillusioned teacher, Sergio Juarez (Eugenio Derbez), is hired to teach sixth graders at Jose Urbina Lopez Elementary school, he knows that he is coming to one of the worst schools in all of Mexico, according to the test results. While the rest of the teachers in the school have been instructed to teach toward test success, Juarez relies upon an untested and untried teaching method that he discovers on the internet. The technique feeds into the inquisitive nature of the students, teaching them to investigate and solve problems on their own. Will this method, which even Juarez is unsure of, be a success or will it drag down the rest of the school’s test scores even further?

Written and directed by Christopher Zalla based on an article by Joshua Davis in WIRED magazine, Radical stars Derbez, Daniel Haddad, Jennifer Trejo, Danilo Guardiola, and Mia Fernanda Solis.

Joshua Davis wrote an article for WIRED magazine with Paloma gracing the cover entitled “The Next Steve Jobs”. Paloma was a student, wonderfully by Jennifer Trejo, at Jose Urbina Lopez elementary school. It was because of the teaching methods of Juarez that Paloma was discovered as a math genius who wanted to be an astronaut and built her own telescope. It is this reality that gives us the basis for this film.

Radical Clip

Christopher Zalla, who won at Sundance in 2007 with Sangre de mi Sangre returns to Sundance with this inspirational masterwork. Let’s face it. The whole educator beating the odds story has been done. To Sir With Love. Dead Poet’s Society. Lean on Me. Dangerous Minds. Stand and Deliver. Even CODA, which also starred Derbez, had this same theme. Somehow, despite the number of predecessors before, Zalla breathes life into this genre by resisting the temptation to create that “Disney-style” film but instead creates a world that teeters between magic and reality, a real-world of joy and pain.

Infused by an almost imperceptible soundtrack, Zalla creates a story that accentuates the power of inspired teaching. When the children, who were considered and even called “ignoramuses” at a school called “a place of punishment”, break their shackles and joyously become engaged in learning, we feel the triumph. When disgruntled principal Chucho (Daniel Haddad) is won over by both the teacher and the children, we rejoice. It’s glorious and wonderful.

At the same time, Zalla does not shy away from the ugliness that is the reality of this Mexican land. Sure there is the prerequisite scene where a parent rejects the teaching methods, saying that the teacher is filling their children’s heads with nonsense. But there is also the child that is raising her brother and sister while her parents’ alternate shifts at the local plant. There is the child who is reluctantly involved in a smuggling operation. A child living at a trash dump. Violence in the streets and poor dirt roads frame a harsh and gritty reality that contrasts the magic and keeps the film well grounded.

Each and every one of these elements combine together to take a story that should be just rote and formulaic and make it surprisingly touching. While it is not as good as “Sangre”, this is another winner for Zalla. It is certainly an emotional and intelligently crafted tear-jerker.

In Spanish with Subtitles

Grade: A-