Film Review: Endgame

A class of underdog Texas students triumphs through playing chess in this determinedly uplifting but unexciting film. It means well, which is about the best one can say about it.
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José (Rico Rodriguez) has always been outshined by his older brother Miguel (Xavier Gonzalez), a star of his Brownsville High soccer team. His mother (Justina Machado) in particular dotes on Miguel with ill-concealed favoritism, but when he dies in a car accident with some friends out drinking, José finally gets to step to the fore with the one thing he shines at: chess. His grandmother (Ivonne Coll) taught him the game when he was five and, coached by Mr. Alvarado (Efren Ramirez), a teacher who wants to turn his detention kids around, José emerges as the school’s chess team leader on the way to the Texas state finals.  

Endgame is based on the real-life story of J.J. Guajardo, a teacher who in 1989 instructed his sixth-grade class in chess and spurred them on to win competitions against other schools with far more resources. Writer-director Carmen Marron has her heart in the right place, focusing on ethnic kids struggling to deal with the lemons life throws at them. Unfortunately, her approach is at once melodramatic and all too obvious to really hold your interest. Her characters and plotting are nothing very original, so it’s good that she has at least the game of chess to fall back on, which is in itself far more compelling than her storyline. The kids’ exhaustive training by their committed teacher and tension during the games have more authenticity than anything else in this all-too-calculated family film.  

Rotund little Rodriguez, the lovable Manny from “Modern Family,” has a winning natural presence which makes you root for his character. Ramirez is attractive and forceful, although called upon to go through some of the more drearily banal turns of uplift in his inspirational teacher role. Machado is excellent, bringing dramatic complexity to a shallowly conceived role, while Coll is a crusty delight as the chess-loving abuela.

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