Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: For the final Watch This series of the year, we’re again highlighting some of the best movies of 2020 that we didn’t review.
On paper, Critical Thinking is a “based on a true story” movie you’ve clicked past on TNT countless times: Teacher inspires kids facing [insert adversity here] through the power of [insert extracurricular here]. The film is certainly all of that—and it’s about chess, to boot—but anyone who skips over this surprisingly fresh take on well-trodden genre territory will miss out on a worthwhile two hours.
John Leguizamo’s debut as a feature-film director (he previously helmed a TV movie) is with what you’d expect from the man behind Latin History For Morons. The actor has long been an advocate for and champion of Latino voices, attempting to make up for the centuries of being—as his Critical Thinking character, Mr. Martinez, would put it—“painted out” of the history books. Here Leguizamo looks to more recent history, centering his movie on the Miami Jackson High School students who, in 1998, became the first inner city team to win the U.S. National Chess Championship.
Critical Thinking is fairly paint-by-numbers in terms of structure, but the numbers here are far more interesting than in most similar fare. (Even though the team’s victory is preordained, it would spoil things to go into any more story details regarding what makes this movie feel different.) The film also benefits from the eye of cinematographer Zach Zamboni, who cut his teeth on docuseries Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations and Parts Unknown and brings that docu feel to the grounded work done by Leguizamo and his group of young costars, including Corwin C. Tuggles, Jeffry Batista, Will Hochman, Angel Bismark Curiel, and Jorge Lendeborg Jr. When the movie follows the students and their coach out of town for competitions, there’s a believable camaraderie among the students that evokes the feel of NBC’s Friday Night Lights more than that of the glossy high-school sports films of the same era. The adversity and daily dangers the Critical Thinking kids face in 1990s Miami are all too real, and all too relatable to low-income minority kids across the country still today.
The film earns its gravitas when exploring the home lives of the students—or “ghetto nerds’” as Leguizamo calls them—a group to which he belonged in his youth, or so he told The A.V. Club recently. But Critical Thinking is most impressive when transforming chess into a nail-biting, cinematic sporting event, with editing, sound design, performance, and score all working in symphony, creating tension and excitement out of quiet board games with outcomes we are already know. During the climactic chess match, both actors successfully convey the sense that each move is still a mystery to them until finger touches figurine. When distilled down to a trailer, Critical Thinking looks like just another cookie-cutter pull on our heartstrings. But like the students whose victory it dramatizes, the film is far more dynamic than people might assume.