Critical Thinking, the directorial debut of John Leguizamo (who boasts well over 200 credits on IMDb), falls into the subgenre of movies where inspiring teachers have to lift up underprivileged students. Coming after films like Freedom Writers and Stand and Deliver, which was infamously spoofed by South Park, “How do I reach these kids?”, is certainly a challenge. How do you tell this unquestionably inspiring story without completely succumbing to tropes? Leguizamo’s film is not completely able to avoid those predictable beats (I am not sure how anyone can) but overcomes this by switching the focus of a story from the teacher to the kids.
Critical Thinking is the true story of Mario Martinez’s 1998 chess team at Miami Jackson High School. They would become the first inner-city team to win the U.S. National Chess Championship. Leguizamo, who stars as Mr. Martinez in addition to directing, makes his ethos clear early on. “Chess is the great equalizer.” Textbooks have written out the accomplishments and contributions of people of color throughout history, but “that was their oversight” he tells his class. “That was their mistake to paint you out”. Because even though its a game where the white pieces move first (guess who made that rule up), it ultimately does not matter. “It does not matter how rich or poor you are, what Ivy League school you might or might not attend, or even what prison you might or might not end up in”.
The students of Miami Jackson have their work cut out for them. Their lives are full of obstacles in this part of the world. The point is driven home when a shocking act of violence befalls a non-English speaking student early on in the film. Leguizamo wisely chooses to not hide behind a PG-13 rating, allowing the dialogue, which occasionally weaves in and out of Spanish, to feel more natural. Teenagers curse a lot. The team includes Sedrick (Corwin C. Tuggles) who lost his mother and lives with his defeated and verbally abusive father, Ito (Jorge Lendenborg Jr.) who works long nights at an auto shop to earn just enough money to live, and Marcel (Jeffry Batista), a new student from Cuba.
These boys and the rest of their class often quarrel but still have each other’s backs. That brotherhood is needed more than ever once Ito loses his job and is forced to sell drugs to get by. Overcoming these odds, raising money for the team to compete in tournaments, and beating the competition turns Critical Thinking into just as much a sports drama as it is a classroom one. The love for the game is apparent in every scene- each one has a rhythm and pacing to it akin to a chess match. During games, Leguizamo keeps the camera on the players rather than the board, emphasizing that this is a mind game more than a physical one. This is most obvious whenever Sedrick plays against his dad, whose aggressive playing style has been beating him his entire life.
The film has a strong cast, which helps its unavoidably cheesy moments still feel genuine enough. It has a fantastic and interesting finale but it ends a bit abruptly, leaving one story thread feeling unresolved. This does help it avoid a cliché-filled epilogue, but there still is not quite enough closure with the characters. Critical Thinking‘s strongest point is its cultural and racial subtext. Leguizamo perfectly finds that balance where the message is obvious and upfront but not so overbearing that it takes away from the personal stories being told. It is a smart and solid directing debut.