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Radical 2023 Movie Review
The outside-the-box teacher who inspires their world-weary students to reach beyond themselves is a narrative path than has been well-trod, but rarely has a film thoroughly explored why said students can’t just do it themselves. Radical manages to do just that, depicting the dire circumstances of its characters almost too well while introducing audiences to its hero of higher education. Radical paints a grim portrait of the effects of poverty on a Mexican elementary school, but it offers hope all the same through Eugenio Derbez’s sincere performance.
Derbez plays Sergio Juarez, the real-life educator at the heart of Radical who makes the surprising choice of requesting a transfer to Jose Urbina Lopez Elementary in Matamoros. Even the school’s principal (Daniel Haddad), or “Director” as he’s referred to throughout the Spanish-language school, cannot believe his ears. Jose Urbina Lopez is a place where computers have never been installed, and the library barely even has books, but Sergio is convinced he can teach his students to love learning instead of focusing on a standardized test that half the class has yet to pass.
Having recently played a strong supporting role in last year’s Oscar winner CODA, Derbez is no stranger to stories that involve inspiring teachers. But this time around, he is leading the cast without anyone of equal footing to play off for the sake of comedy — and he is tasked with captivating a primarily English-speaking (and adverse to subtitles) audience entirely in Spanish. It is a task he handles with grace and ease, as expected of a superstar with four decades of experience in the Mexican film industry. His classroom scenes endear him to the students and viewers alike, as he never stoops to condescension and always leaves room for the younger actors to shine.
And shine they do, for Radical follows its supporting cast of elementary schoolers (mostly Danilo Guardiola, Mía Fernanda Solis, and Jennifer Trejo) as they move through their daily lives outside of class. Class clown Niko slowly starts to fall in love with learning, but his ties to the neighborhood gang hold him back and seem impossible to cut. Lupe, meanwhile, wants nothing more than to debate philosophy like John Stuart Mill, but her mother’s latest pregnancy threatens to take her out of school and turn her into a full-time babysitter. Finally, Paloma can build a telescope on her own but has to look out for her sick, science-skeptical father.
Each of these children’s stories must walk a difficult tightrope, simultaneously justifying their reluctance to pursue education while also showcasing how Sergio’s interference in their lives is a boon rather than a burden. This is the most challenging mission for Radical to accomplish and the part where it most falls into the trap of feel-good afterschool special tropes. Christopher Zalla’s steady script and direction are aided by the true story (and the WIRED article by Joshua Davis) that guides its events, however, so the movie never wallows for too long in its own maudlin circumstances.
Tragedy and triumph go hand in hand as Radical’s runtime runs down, though perhaps the film fails to linger long enough on either in its conclusion. The strength of the story rests firmly in Derbez’s sensitive portrayal and his touching moments with each student, proving that Sergio does know how to spark a genuine excitement for education by tapping into a child’s personal interests. And though the denouement may deflate after such delicate build-up, one still comes away from the film with a sense of protectiveness and pride when thinking about Sergio and his students.