Education has always been a foundational part of our society, but the hard truth is many children face bigger obstacles than others. The 2011 sixth grade class in Matamoros, Mexico is one such group and the subject of Radical.
Based on a true story, Radical chronicles the highs and lows of an unconventional teacher, Sergio Juarez (Eugenio Derbez), as he tries to get through to students at José Urbina López Elementary, notoriously some of the worst performing students in all of Mexico. Juarez startles administrators by refusing to teach to the end-of-year test and instead letting students decide what they want to learn themselves, coaxing them to fundamentally understand learning and critical thinking rather than reciting a bunch of memorized facts.
The inspiring story of a teacher and his students overcoming tremendous odds isn’t fresh or new. But it’s evidence that it still keeps happening in the real world. Juarez’s students face gang violence, poverty, family obligations, and adults that refuse to believe these kids can be more than their circumstances. The film smartly focuses on three kids in particular as their teacher employs interactive science experiments and patient, thoughtful discussions to hold his students’ attention. Nico (Danilo Guardiola) is a class clown, too cool to try and eager to join his brother in working for the cartels. Lupe (Mia Fernanda Solis) enjoys school but spends most of her time caring for her siblings while her parents work around the clock. Paloma (Jennifer Trejo) is a shy girl, bullied because her father sorts trash for a living, and secretly a mathematical genius who wants to become an astronaut. The young actors put in an impressive shift with the heavy subject matter, immediately endearing themselves to the audience.
Eugenio Derbez, who was at Sundance last year with Best Picture winner CODA, uses his comedy chops to great avail here as Sergio Juarez, at turns funny, kind, and very much marching to the beat of his own drum. It’s all lined with an undercurrent of determination and Derbez does a fantastic job subtly conveying Juarez’s internal and external struggles.
As someone that grew up in a small, predominantly Hispanic town in South Texas, I was struck by how accurately director Christopher Zalla portrayed the real issues facing these students. It’s not only that they don’t have the resources or the free time to focus on their studies, but also that oftentimes the adults in their communities don’t see education as a valuable or realistic endeavor. To them, education is spending money they don’t have for pursuits that would take their children far away from them when they could be earning money at home instead. It’s a continuous cycle of poverty that takes someone like Juarez to break, to offer guidance on financial help and belief in these kids, who’ve always been told they won’t amount to anything. And even then, as Radical portrays, not all of these capable kids escape the cycle.
As inspiring as the film is, it also tries to cover a lot of ground in two hours. In trying to examine so many issues like gang violence, family issues, and poverty, the film has trouble building a connection between the audience and the characters, and they never quite delve fully into Juarez’s past as to how he arrived in Matamoros. Thus, the end of the film is less of a warm, fuzzy heart punch and more of a warm, fuzzy poke.
Still, Radical treats its subjects with dignity and crafts a story that may not be original but is still very welcome in a world that feels increasingly distant between the haves and the have-nots.