Based on the true story of a low-income Texas school district on the Mexican border whose chess club has helped students gain the opportunity for a brighter future, “Endgame” follows the underdog tale of a middle-schooler for whom the game provides a way to fit in. Touching on weighty themes like immigration and alienation in ways that won’t overtax the young audience it targets, this sophomore effort from writer-producer-director Carmen Marron relies on predictable moves in serving up an underdog tale of a Hispanic family, similar to her urban dance-themed “Go for It.” Opening theatrically today in Los Angeles and expanding Oct. 2, the family film will do most of its business in homes, which is only appropriate, since it has the feel of an Afterschool Special.
Jose (“Modern Family’s” Rico Rodriguez) is the schlubby younger child of Karla (Justina Machado, “The Purge: Anarchy”), a single mom whose sun rises and sets with his brother, Miguel (Xavier Gonzalez), the star of the school soccer team. Miguel snips playfully at his younger sibling, but seems ready to defend him when mom gets too shrill — though theirs is a relationship that Marron and co-screenwriter Hector Salinas don’t define very well. Jose’s orbit includes his grandmother (“Jane the Virgin’s” Ivonne Coll), who has taught him to play chess, and treats him like her son; next-door neighbor and best friend, Dani (Alina Herrera), who has a crush on him, but harbors a dark secret; and chess coach Mr. Alvarado (Efren Ramirez — popularity-magnet Pedro from “Napoleon Dynamite,” all grown up).
At school, Jose is forever reminded of Miguel’s success, and bitter to the point that he grabs his brother’s award from the school trophy case and breaks it, the act earning him a few weeks of after-school detention, the wrath of mom and more chess lessons from his abuelita.
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Karla’s treatment of the two boys is so inequitable that it borders on a being a Smothers Brothers routine; she makes Miguel a hearty breakfast, while Jose gets a few scraps and an expired box of cereal.
When Brownsville wins its big soccer match, Karla invites a crowd over to celebrate, but Miguel would rather party with his teammates. Motoring along, one of them opens a bottle of whiskey, and the driver (whose body mass index belies the kinesiology of soccer) starts to text, so it’s only too clear the fate that must befall them.
The whole town attends Miguel’s funeral, but his brother’s death hasn’t spelled the end of Jose’s detention. Dani welcomes a surly Jose back to school and says she has detention, too, dragging him to it. But the room has been appropriated by Mr. Alvarado, who has turned it into the school’s chess club — the Brainiacs — and is teaching the game to a captive crowd. Now all they have to do is raise funding, win a few matches and fill that void in the school trophy case by defeating the predominantly white Checkmates.
While the picture may be based on fact, the team’s victories — first locally, then regionally, seem to come rather easily, with the statewide tournament soon all that’s left in doubt (sort of). Jose faces a tougher gambit in getting through to his chess-averse, zombified mother, who resents Abuelita and won’t hear of Jose’s accusations that Miguel confided he was being suffocated by Karla’s expectations — a late-arriving nugget that’s news to viewers as well.
The mix of serious-minded themes with frequently juvenile humor is jarring. It’s hard to watch Abuelita flit about making age-inappropriate jokes to her grandson (“You’re thinking with the wrong head!”), and soon thereafter witness the arrest of Dani’s family by the border patrol. (A subsequent scene in which Jose lingers forlornly at Dani’s front door is the movie’s most powerful.)
Similarly, Ramirez’s Alvarado, who is the real hero of the piece, lacks the needed gravitas for the role. He’s the agent of change for a number of key characters — and borders on heartbreaking in his exchanges with the buffoonish school principal (Jon Gries, also of “Napoleon Dynamite”) — but for most of the film, he carries a ridiculous grin that seems determined to be the antithesis of the hangdog Pedro.
On screen throughout much of the film, young Rodriguez is surest when playing for laughs, particularly with Coll in their shtick-laden scenes. For now, his dramatic range alternates from slow burn to bluster, with not much in between. In support, Machado’s Karla and Coll’s Abuelita are a study in contrasts, with the former giving an undistinguished turn in an underwritten role, and the latter showing impressive range for a part that asks her to play too broadly.
Those with a basic knowledge of chess will understand that for all the high-falutin’ terminology being tossed around — Alvarado invokes the Ruy Lopez, the Sicilian and the Nimzo-Indian defense — we’re almost exclusively treated to games that feature the Giuoco Piano (pawn to king four, anyone?) in every match. One doesn’t expect the existential themes on the nature of competition in “Searching for Bobby Fischer” to be on offer here, but an occasional Queen’s Gambit isn’t so much to ask for. (And if Abuelita, the wife of a chess champion, has been teaching Jose the game since he was 5, why is she just now getting around to schooling him in the Piano?)
Pantelion films distributed Marron’s superior if formulaic “Go for It,” but wouldn’t bite on this one. Certainly the director’s heart is in the right place here; it’s in moving her pawns around that flummoxes her.
Tech work is appropriate, with pacing benefiting from Francisco Bulgarelli’s lingering camera, which captures the flavor of the hardscrabble Hispanic neighborhood and the cultural significance that comes with a jaunt through the local cemetery. Musical interludes that accompany the montages between Jose and Dani are particularly sweet and well-chosen, with graphics for the opening and closing credits sharp.