In the real world, educators rarely get the respect their profession deserves. Struggles against oppressive societies and inexcusably low budgets and salaries make the job of teachers a difficult and commendable one. Christopher Zalla’s “Radical” is a film that pays tribute to the importance of education while portraying the hardships of saving children from the dangers of their environments.
Eugenio Derbez stars as Sergio Juarez, an unorthodox teacher in the Mexican border town of Matamoros, a place where the children have little hope for a future.
Being a new teacher at José Urbina López Elementary, Juarez uses an unorthodox teaching method where it is the students who lead the curriculum. They are encouraged to learn what they want to learn. In doing so, Juarez fueled their passion for learning and let them (in a way) guide their own fates and work toward their dreams.
For Sergio Juarez, it is not about making the learning happen, it’s about letting it happen and keeping the students engaged.
Derbez is fantastic in the role. Gone is any trace of his famous comic persona that made him famous in his native Mexico. While his roles in American films have not endeared his style to me, Derbez made a mark in the 2021 Sundance favorite CODA, playing an inspirational teacher. Succeeding once again in this type of role, the actor brings a sharp understanding of Juarez’s drive to reach his students while plagued by occasional self-doubt. Derbez’s natural charm sells the character’s ability to win over the hearts of the students and (for the most part) the staff in this wonderful performance.
By-the-book Principal Chucho (a fantastic Daniel Haddad) is baffled by his new teacher’s method and skeptical of his ability to properly teach. As he slowly learns to understand Sergio’s heartfelt dedication to the wellbeing of his students, Chucho comes do admire the man. The moments of blossoming friendship between the two men are some of the finest in the film.
The students in Juarez’s class are well cast and written with care.
Niko (Danilo Guardiola) is a boy heading down a wrong path, but one who has a desire to learn. Before Mr. Juarez, no one ever told him he was smart and he acted accordingly. Niko is enamored of Paloma (Jennifer Trejo), who lives near a garbage landfill with her ailing father, who sells scrap to give them the little life they have. Paloma has never been confident to explore her potential. Juarez taps into her smarts (he believes she is a certified genius) and gives her the courage.
Lupe (Mía Fernanda Solis) is a girl who begins to take an interest in Philosophy. When her mother asks her why she is reading it, Lupe replies, “I don’t understand a lot of it, but it’s very interesting.”
This is the impact Sergio Juarez has on his students. No subject is beyond one’s understanding. Challenge yourself. Make learning interesting to you.
The performances Zalla gets from his young actors are incredible. Nothing feels forced and not a false note is struck. This young cast is terrific.
Zalla (who wrote the screenplay based on an article by Joshua Davis) calls this picture a labor of love. He says the work is a “movie about what happens when kids are empowered.”
The film is certainly well crafted, and the filmmaker understands the importance of character, letting each role and its performer find their place organically. There is tragedy in the film, as there is in life, but Zalla won’t allow his work to swim in the banality of most Hollywood projects.
The kids growing up in that area are beset by dangers every day of their life. All they are left to do is carefully walk the path laid before them and hopefully sidestep the pitfalls that inhabit their reality.
Story-wise, we have been here many times before. Movies have long been a perfect showcase for the unconventional teacher stepping in to help the underprivileged. For a time in American cinema, this type of film became its own sub-genre. There were (too) many made year after year with a large percentage being clichéd and offensively simplistic. The great ones (“Conrack”, “Stand and Deliver”, “Lean on Me”) maintained strong focus on the importance of educating children when so many want to give up on them.
“Radical” is one of the great ones. Through Christopher Zalla’s deeply felt passion, he has created something profound.
Seeing the joy and excitement on the faces of these children as they dove into their education, filled my soul with joy and moved me deeply.
As Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young sang, “Teach your children well… and feed them on your dreams.”
This is a message for all to live by.
Written by Christopher Zalla (Based on anarticle by Joshua Davis)
Directed by Christopher Zalla
Starring Eugenio Derbez, Daniel Haddad, Jennifer Trejo, Danilo Guardiola, Mía Fernanda Solis
NR, 122 Minutes, 3Pas Studios