Chess Prodigies Shine In 'Brooklyn Castle'

Documentary film has developed a new minigenre in the past few years: kids in competition. In Spellbound it was a spelling bee, and in First Position it was ballet. Now, chess in Brooklyn Castle. Critic Kenneth Turan has this review.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Documentaries have developed a new mini-genre in the last few years: kids in competition. In "Spellbound" it was a spelling bee. In "First Position" it was ballet. Now it's chess in "Brooklyn Castle." Critic Kenneth Turan has this review.

KENNETH TURAN, BYLINE: "Brooklyn Castle" focuses on the chess team from I.S. 318, a public junior high school in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn where more than 65 per cent of the students come from homes with incomes below the federal poverty line.

Yet, as the school's principal explains from the very beginning, nothing stood in this team's way.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "BROOKLYN CASTLE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It started with this little group of kids. We had a couple boys. And they came in and started playing and we decided that we would make a try to go into the nationals, because it would be a great experience for the children from 318 to travel to another state to enter a chess competition. And we won. Then we won again. This goes on for 10 years. We're still winning.

TURAN: What makes "Brooklyn Castle" stand out is the way it focuses more on the children than the chess. So we meet confident Nigerian-American Pobo, youthful prodigy Justus, who has to learn how to lose; and serious Alexis, who worries about passing a high school entrance exam.

And we also follow recent I.S. 318 graduate Rochelle, who has a real chance to become the first female African-American chess master. We also meet the dedicated I.S. 318 coaching staff, especially passionate chess teacher Elizabeth Vicary.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "BROOKLYN CASTLE")

ELIZABETH VICARY: Given that I can't see forever, all the possible continuations, or all the way down into the sort of infinitely expanding realms of two-two continuations in chess, it's very hard to know what that best move is.

TURAN: The students have to deal with more than personal problems and chess dilemmas - massive budget cuts to schools threaten to cripple the team. The film demonstrates how much children can thrive if they work hard and are encouraged, and how much humble public schools can accomplish with their students if proper funding is not an issue.

A movie about disadvantaged kids finding redemption through chess is going to be heartening, but "Brooklyn Castle" puts you deep inside their lives in a way you won't soon forget.

MONTAGNE: Kenneth Turan reviews movies for Morning Edition and the Los Angeles Times.

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