It is often said that soccer is the world’s game, because all you need is a ball, and anybody — of any race or class or social standing — can play. But if there was a close second, chess could arguably fill that slot. All you need is a board and someone to play with and you’re good to go, and there is a case to be made that the mental dexterity needed to perform at the highest level equals that to any overhead volley on the pitch. However, it differs from sports in one key facet. While most other athletic competitions define success by statistics, chess celebrates problem solving and requires players to not necessarily eliminate their opponent’s pieces but to craft the most cunning way to victory. But as audiences will see in the documentary “Brooklyn Castle,” the problems the kids of I.S. 318 face go beyond the board into real life, and yet, what they learn from their bishops and pawns has indelibly marked them forever.
A school in which the majority of students are from families living at the poverty line or lower, on the surface it hardly seems like the kind of place where you’ll find a success story, let alone several. But as viewers soon learn, there is nothing about these teachers or their kids that fits convention. What started as a small chess club at the school quickly turned into a national phenomenon as I.S. 318 has produced some of the most skilled players of a generation, and has become a famed force to be reckoned with. With banners, medals and trophies lining the halls and filling the cabinets at school, and at the homes of its players, it has proven to be one of the shining examples of the benefits of extracurricular activity. And for a variety of students who play, compete and win, it’s a lifeline to a world they may not (or their parents may not) have expected was within reach.
What makes director Katie Dellamaggiore‘s film go slightly deeper than a similarly toned, crowd-pleasing documentary like “Spellbound,” is that it subtly makes the connection between the simple equation that investment in our children will give dividends that go far beyond any sort of number on a balance sheet. Nearly every child featured has seen gains from chess that will forge a path for the rest of their lives. Among the fascinating tapestry of middle schoolers we meet, the filmmakers zero in on five of them: Pobo, an immensely warm and charming 7th grader who credits chess for keeping him out of trouble; Rochelle, who is gearing up to enter high school and has the talent to be the first African American female Master chess player; Alexis, the son of immigrant parents who work and save all they can for his college education; Justus, a silent 6th grader who has an enormous talent at chess that outshines kids years older than he is; and finally Patrick, who is hoping the game can finally be something for his ADD brain to focus on for more than a moment at a time.
The changes these kids go through on camera is remarkable. Buoyed by being with a championship school has no doubt boosted Pobo’s self confidence, and as he runs for class president it’s not a surprise that he already has visions of the White House in his eyes. Meanwhile, both Alexis and Rochelle deal with an admirable maturity, the tough decisions about where their lives will go post I.S. 318, and whether or not chess has a place in it. As for Justus, who is fast approaching Master status at such a young age, he must learn that his skill is not infallible and loss is not failure. While Patrick, easily the weakest player on the school’s team by a long margin, wants the simple goal of a victory in competition. And his journey is perhaps the sweetest of any of them here, because it underscores the notion time is perhaps the most valuable asset any teacher or parent can give a struggling student.
Of course, extra credits need to be given to chess coach and teacher Elizabeth Spiegel and assisant principal and chess coordinator John Galvin who are exemplars of the unspoken heroes in the public system who go far beyond the call of duty to give their students opportunities that they themselves never had. Thus, when we learn that the tanking economy has forced New York State to cut funding to schools across the board, it’s a sting that understandly doesn’t heal easily. Here, I.S. 318 has worked hard to create a model of success only to find it in jeopardy of being seriously compromised. But it speaks to the motivations of everyone involved that the setback is just another hurdle to overcome. Something akin to losing your second rook, perhaps.
But the woes befalling the school board don’t sour the documentary or the kids. “Brooklyn Castle” is an ultimately engaging and moving testament to the perserverance and determination to succeed, not only for the players in the film who are making their way from middle school to high school and eventually adult life, but also for the parents trying to fulfill the American Dream and teachers with a passionate belief in education. And while the social and political structures around them may not always lend the best support, even in the hardest of times, everyone at I.S. 318 pulls together for each other. We’re pretty sure there’s not a chess move for that. [B+]