Engaging documentary shows both the benefits of chess and the human cost of educational budget cuts.
DIRECTED BY KATIE DELLAMAGGIORE (USA, Special Presentations)
Sunday April 29, 6:30 p.m.
Cumberland Three (159 Cumberland Street)
Tuesday May 1, 9:00 p.m.
ROM Theatre (100 Bloor Street West)
Saturday May 5, 1:15 p.m.
The Regent (555 Mount Pleasant Road)
Technically, Brooklyn Castle is the tale of IS 318, a Brooklyn, New York middle school that has, over the last 15 years, turned into the most dominant junior high chess program in the United States. When assistant principal and assistant chess coach John Galvin calls 318 “the New York Yankees of chess,” he’s not kidding. The kids of 318 are so used to winning that coming in second in a field of hundreds is almost treated as a defeat.
More broadly, it is also a movie about the difference that after-school programs can make in the lives of children, and the ongoing fight to keep those programs in the face of ever-shrinking school budgets. Director Katie Dellamaggiore does a good job meshing the specific story of 318’s quest to retain dominance and the overarching theme of cuts to education.
It’s hard not to root for the kids of 318. Mostly the children of immigrants, and largely poor and working class, they don’t come from the sort of backgrounds that produce a lot of chess champions. They’re also, on the whole, extremely likeable—particularly Pobo, an outspoken, already man-sized eighth-grader who’s the team’s unofficial captain; Rochelle, the lone girl on the squad; and Alexis, the skinny, quiet son of South American immigrants who is almost preoccupied with making life easier for his parents.
All this is set against a backdrop of a seemingly never-ending round of budget cuts that threaten the chess team’s budget, as well as the entire “whole child” teaching style that makes IS 318 so successful. Yes, the kids win the battle of the budget and manage to send a team to the national championship, but it’s made clear that this is part of a bigger war, one in which things like 318’s chess program will almost inevitably become casualties.
Brooklyn Castle is careful not to vilify the adults who make these macro-level budget decisions. It would be easy to turn this into a story of plucky inner city youth taking on heartless bureaucrats, and Dellamaggiore does an admirable job of avoiding that sort of sentimentality. That said, we feel fairly confident that if aspiring statesman Pobo was given a chance to speak before the state legislature, he could convince them to restore education funding inside of 10 minutes. For a 13-year-old, he’s remarkably charismatic.