Brooklyn Castle is the sort of movie to inspire in-theatre clapping. The feeble-minded might say the same of Won’t Back Down, but here’s a story about public school children living below the poverty line that paints a portrait of strength rather than vulnerability. Under the rigorous and loving tutelage of Ms. Vicary, the chess players of I.S. 318—mostly boys, but with Queen Rochelle Ballantyne leading the troops—are the best middle school players in the nation. It’s a title they fight to defend match in and match out, as they travel the country collecting trophies about as tall as the sixth graders among them.
I.S. 318 (profiled in Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed) is in South Williamsburg, and film director Katie Dellamaggiore is perhaps slightly overly committed to the ‘hood’ angle. Much attention is paid to whether self-doubt or “swagger” will win out in a particularly promising player, Justus Williams, and at one point his teammate James Black is filmed performing a fairly clumsy rap about crushing his opponents. (It’s no sweat off Black’s back, though. He goes on to win first place at that tournament, which happens to be the state final.) Similarly, the students are extremely confident in the happiness-ensuring principles of a law degree—everyone on the team seems to want one. Still, there’s something deeply impressive about thirteen-year-olds who know their futures won’t be handed to them and plot their moves accordingly.
More delicately handled is the film’s treatment of school budget cuts, which pose an especially dire threat to the oft-traveling chess team. And so we get a soft reminder of the importance of public education as the players do battle via walkathons, dunk tanks, and letters to their representatives.
The most compelling drama, however, takes place at the chessboard. This might be because it seems that for the most part, these kids—who are almost certainly smarter than you and I and sometimes rated higher on the chess scale than Albert Einstein—will be fine whether the budget gets cut 1%, 2.6%, or more. But when you watch one of them sweating out his last few moves or kicking himself over a game misplayed, it’s impossible not to feel his anguish, which seems unrelated to whether he will indeed go to law school and more a crisis of self-worth. “I lost a pawn and then I just fell apart after,” the usually tight-lipped Williams tells his mom on a phone call from a hotel lobby.
In addition to the lessons of failure, which are especially unwelcome when “you’re already trying as hard as you can,” as Patrick Johnston, a low-ranking player who struggles with ADHD, laments, the kids get a taste of seeking out solutions on their own. And sometimes—often, even—they find them. Johnston manages to graduate with a solid record and a high GPA. Ballantyne earns a full ride to UT-Dallas thanks to chess. The team goes on to win the United States Chess Federation’s national high school championship. Cheering yet