Film Review: Brooklyn Castle

The engrossing story of a Brooklyn school’s wildly successful chess team makes for a smart and emotionally satisfying documentary that also manages to show that not every American public school is a graffiti-strewn money pit.

When documentaries take on schools as a subject, particularly American elementary or high schools, the result is usually one of two takes. The film is either a lament for a nation’s crumbling educational edifice or a feel-good film about a band of plucky upstarts defying the odds. In either event, the assumption is generally that things are fairly horrendous, school-wise, and that only particularly lucky or unique groups can hope to win out. What makes Katie Dellamaggiore’s Brooklyn Castle so wonderful and fresh-feeling in many ways is how it neatly skirts those preassigned roles for the students, parents and teachers it follows around.

The case of Brooklyn’s Intermediate School 318 is a fairly unique one. A junior high where some 70 percent of its students live in poverty, it has nevertheless managed to utterly dominate the nation when it comes to chess championships. With over two-dozen national chess titles to their name, the school is something of a powerhouse, with some calling their team “the Yankees of chess.” While it’s likely stretching it a bit to believe what one of the teachers says early on, that “in 318, the geeks, they are the athletes,” there’s no denying the ease and swagger with which these kids walk the hallways. Likely social pariahs elsewhere, at I.S. 318 these kids get to be the champions and face down not bullies but phalanxes of beaming, camera-wielding parents while holding giant trophies.

Dellamaggiore doesn’t dwell on trying to highlight the social-outsider status of these kids, though. Instead, she focuses on their navigation of the increasing pressures of winning—the team’s standards for itself are so high they are distraught when coming in only second in a tournament with over 800 rival schools—while also keeping their grades up and studying for the standardized test that decides what high school they’ll be attending. The pack of kids she picks to follow are an exemplary and vibrant bunch, from Rochelle, a guarded and highly ambitious striver who is aiming to be the first female African-American grand-master, to Pobo, an empathetic bundle of leadership and good vibes who has “future politician” written all over him, and Justus, a quiet, dreadlocked 11-year-old from the Bronx who’s already more determined than many pro athletes.

By not being another grim chronicle of a crumbling school in a poor and mostly minority neighborhood, Brooklyn Castle frees itself up to focus on the kids and their clearly grueling training regimen (not to mention the threat posed to the chess program by budget cuts). Also making an impression here are John Galvin and Elizabeth Vicary, respectively the vice-president and chess team coach; if there are two more modest yet perfectly suited educators out there in the New York school district, they haven’t been located.

While Dellamaggiore’s canny decision not to get lost in the weeds of chess arcana gives the film a broader appeal and allows her to focus more on her protagonists, it does deprive the film of a certain depth. By focusing too much on just whether or not the kids win, Dellamaggiore misses an opportunity to explore the appeal of chess itself (in the manner of a similar film, Wordplay), not to mention the ways by which the team members improve their play. This is a minor complaint, though; with a cast of characters this charming, a paucity of background information is far from the worst thing.