John Leguizamo’s Critical Thinking is a strategic crowd-pleaser.
Once a pawn a time (yes, I went there), inspirational true-stories had been all the rage. They have been performed a thousand times over. The genre is watered down to a point that most are poorly executed. The issue is you need a fresh, interesting human interest angle. I’m not sure how accurate or how much sugar coating is involved in John Leguizamo’s Critical Thinking, but about 15 minutes in you’ll be sobered enough to understand these kid’s hardships. With a very charismatic lead performance by the director, Leguizamo’s film manages to rise above a tired genre’s expectations.
Leguizamo plays Mario Martinez, a dedicated Cuban-American educator who teaches a chess elective at Miami Jackson Senior High School. His class is mostly filled with Latinx and Black teens who he inspires to form their own team. “Mr. T”, as his students affectionately call him, even finances the team’s trips because Jackson High’s bureaucratic principle (Ben is Back’s Rachel Bay Jones) won’t take a stand to approve the funds. Together with his hand-picked, all-star chess students Sedrik (Corwin C. Tuggles, a real find here), Gil (Will Hochman), Ito (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), and Rodelay (Angel Bismark Curiel), they make it all the way to the 1998 National Chess Championship.
Critical Thinking is based on the true story about a group of mostly people of color or minority students who defy the odds of becoming chess champions. It was one of the numerous films that missed the SXSW film festival last March because of the (still ongoing) Covid-19 pandemic. It’s Leguizamo’s sophomore feature film behind the camera and it is a good one. His first was 17years ago with 2003’s Undefeated. He has a finger on a timeless theme with a modern-day pulse that anyone can relate to. It is relevant, timely, and engaging enough for the audience to not only care about the team’s outcome but the individuals as well.
Critical Thinking will always have the usual, classic tropes. It also lacks a budget for a truly affecting musical score. It is, though, sprinkled with a natural inspiration to keep the viewer’s attention. There are enough maneuvers here, like the chemistry between the members of its young cast and a charismatic lead performance by Leguizamo, that formulate a winning storytelling strategy.
M.N. Miller has been a film and television writer for Ready Steady Cut since August of 2018 and is patiently waiting for the next Pearl Jam album to come out.