Winner of a 2012 SXSW Film Festival audience award, “Brooklyn Castle” is an irresistibly uplifting doc about students at an inner-city junior high school who rank among the very best competitive chess players in the United States. Producer Scott Rudin and Sony Pictures reportedly have purchased remake rights for a dramatic feature adaptation, but this crowd-pleasing pic could flex its own commercial muscle by moving beyond fest and arthouse grids to capture crossover auds.
Early on in her opening gambits, documentarian Katie Dellamaggiore generates rooting interest in her subjects at I.S. 318, a Brooklyn junior high school where 65% of the students come from families that live below the federal poverty level. Chess coach John Galvin and teacher Elizabeth Vicary come off as dedicated and inspiring instructors who instinctively understand when and how to push each young competitor in their care. They also know when to be comforting, as in an unexpectedly touching scene when a student bemoans his loss: “I missed mate in two,” he sobs.
But “Brooklyn Castle” is much less about Galvin, Vicary and sympathetic school principal Fred Rubino than it is about the chess players. For reasons never explained, Dellamaggiore identifies almost all her young subjects only by their first names throughout the film. A notable exception: Rochelle Ballantyne, a soft-spoken yet spirited prodigy who seeks to become nothing less than the first African-American female master in the history of chess. And even in this case, the full ID is more or less accidental, as the audience sees her name engraved on an award.
Like her I.S. 318 teammates, Ballantyne is a happy chessboard warrior, dedicated to continuing the school’s impressive record of national tournament wins while using the game as a means to an end. (There’s a full college scholarship waiting for her if she can take first-place honors in a final-reel competition.) She frankly admits that, at another time, at another school, she wasn’t always comfortable discussing her enthusiasm for chess: “I didn’t like talking about it,” she says with a sweet smile, “because it made me seem like a nerd.” But she doesn’t worry about that sort of thing anymore.
Other all-stars include Justus, an 11-year-old chess whiz who struggles to fulfill expectations raised by his early achievements; Alexis, a thoughtful seventh grader who’s certain that he must get into the right high school to get a great job and help support his immigrant parents; Patrick, a seventh grader anxious to use chess as therapy, hoping the intense focus required for playing will help him overcome his attention deficit disorder; and Pobo, a charismatic natural leader who runs for school president as “Pobama” while promising to lead a battle to restore state-mandated budget cuts.
Those cutbacks, instituted in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown, propel an increasingly urgent subplot in the second half of “Brooklyn Castle,” as I.S. 318 administrators, much like their counterparts at other New York schools, cope with mandates to trim budgets to the bone. With after-school programs like chess among the potential frontline casualties (to use the blunt phraseology of the pic’s intertitles) in the war on deficits, Dellamaggiore’s young subjects must confront the possibility of not being able to compete in out-of-state tournaments. Indeed, they must worry about not being able to compete, period.
If a shrewd distrib can get the right people to view “Brooklyn Castle,” the pic conceivably could generate attention (and debate) in non-entertainment press coverage of school-budget debates across the country, especially during an election year. That won’t hurt its box office potential at all.
Technically polished and intimately detailed docu indicates Dellamaggiore and her production team knew precisely how to gain trust and remain unobtrusive while fashioning their fascinating up-close look at the real-life dramas of budding chess masters.