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Malcolm David Kelley,
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Brooklyn Castle is a documentary about I.S. 318 - an inner-city school where more than 65 percent of students are from homes with incomes below the federal poverty level - that also happens to have the best, most winning junior high school chess team in the country. (If Albert Einstein, who was rated 1800, were to join the team, he'd only rank fifth best). Chess has transformed the school from one cited in 2003 as a "school in need of improvement" to one of New York City's best. But a series of recession-driven pubic school budget cuts now threaten to undermine those hard-won successes. Written by
Entertaining film thanks to the stories but doesn't thrill or link to the bigger pictures as well as it should
Hard not to compare this film to Spellbound in that it shows students working very hard in an intellectual pursuit in order to improve themselves and open up new avenues for their futures. This is an unfortunate comparison because really this film is not as good as Spellbound on many levels and, to be honest, even without the direct comparison it is easy to see weaknesses within Brooklyn Castle as a documentary. I say "as a documentary" because as a general film it works pretty well despite running a little longer than it can bear. The main reason it works is because of the characters involved; the teachers are passionate, the students are colorful, engaged and driven and generally the viewer invests in them because of how likable and interesting they are as people. This is something the filmmakers have done well because, while some of the kids are instantly likable, some of them are a little bit harder to get close to and in the edit good selections have been made to bring their characters across the best.
In this way we care who wins and loses when the film inevitably comes down to the final contests. All of this is good and I liked the film for that but what disappointed me was that the attempts to speak bigger than them doesn't work as well. In terms of showing the value of after-school activities it is a no-brainer to see that this group of kids benefit greatly but I would have liked the film to do more with stats to show that this is true generally by contrasting with other schools and painting an undeniable picture of the importance of these programs. It does this well through the main thrust but there was room for more. Likewise the impact of budget cuts, it shows them and discusses them but it really doesn't hit it home and to be honest I watched the film thinking that actually 2-4% cut was not that bad and seemed to be well managed. I'm guessing this is not the message the film was trying to present (nor is it the case either I imagine) but the lack of bigger picture on the importance and the lack of bigger picture on the impact of the cuts really missed the opportunity to hit this message hard. The point of the film was not just to entertain with the story of this particular collection of students or this school, but on top of that to use them to make a bigger point and educate and engage the viewer (by drawing them into the former and then hitting their engaged-brains with the latter).
It is a shame that it doesn't do this as well as it should because it would have been a much stronger film for it. As it is, the film still works as an entertaining, engaging and uplifting look at these specific students, but just the important messages are not as well delivered as they should have been and that is a real disappointment for this as a documentary. Well worth seeing for what it does well though.
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