Review of Brooklyn Castle

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Amidst financial crises and unprecedented public school budget cuts, Brooklyn Castle takes an up-close look at the challenges and triumphs members of a junior high school's champion chess team face.
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Movie Review: "Brooklyn Castle"

-- Rating: PG (some language)
Length: 101 minutes
Release Date: Oct. 19, 2012
Directed by: Katie Dellamaggiore
Genre: Documentary

Some documentaries are made to inform the public about some kind of issue facing the nation or world. Others tell a true tale of a person or group of that is remarkable in some way. "Brooklyn Castle" does both by shedding light on the crippling poverty of inner-city schools while also telling the true tale about a group of chess champions at I.S. 318.

Chess is a complex game that most players take years to master. Many adults have a hard time grasping the concepts and strategies behind the age-old game, which is said to be the hardest game in the world. That's why the story of the chess team at I.S. 318, a junior high school in Brooklyn, New York, is so incredible. The students, over the years, won over thirty national titles-more than any other school in the country.

The team consists of eighty-five members, plus coach Elizabeth Spiegel and coordinator John Galvan, who also serves as the vice principle of the school. Since the documentary is only 101 minutes long, not all the children could be featured on camera. Instead, director Katie Dellamaggiore picks out a handful of the most colorful personalities to highlight, since she also focuses on their personal background and how they hope chess will help them.

One of the most amazing stories is that of Patrick Johnston, a seventh grader with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Granted, he is one of the lower-ranked players on the team, but he doesn't let it deter him. His modest goal is to reach the middle rankings of the team by the end of the year. It may not seem like a huge goal to most, but it is a monumental task bravely taken on by the plucky Johnston.

Rochelle Ballantyne joined the team of mostly boys to prove girls could play just as well as boys. She proved her point by ascending to the top rating in the school. However, she has trouble balancing her academic life with the demands of practicing chess to stay competitive.

Justus Williams is already a rising star nationally as a chess champion and shows signs of being a true prodigy. The attention it gained him is a bit of a double-edged sword for the sixth grader. He knows the attention could lead to great opportunities later, but the pressure becomes too much for him at times. He has to learn how to handle the expectations and not crumble under the immense pressure he feels because of it.

Each individual story is both exhilarating and slightly heartbreaking on some level. The neighborhood that I.S. 318 serves is one of the poorest in Brooklyn, with 65 percent of the students living at or below the poverty level. Making a bleak situation worse, the school announces that its funding will be cut by $1 million, which means the money for extracurricular activities, like the chess team, will be slashed.

Watching the faces of the children when they learn that they may no longer have funds to travel and compete at chess tournaments is difficult. The chess team teaches them about life and opens doors to their future. Having it taken away essentially eliminates the only thing giving them hope. The students can't afford to move their families or transfer to a private school with a chess team. If they can't play at I.S. 318, they can't play anywhere.

Director Dellamaggiore highlights the struggle that students, teachers, and parents all go through to figure out a way to stop their funding from being cut. One of the team members, Pobo Efekoro, decides to run for school president in the hopes it will give him the power to restore the budget. That the kids try to think of solutions to a bad situation, a byproduct of their chess playing, is enormously uplifting. Adults and children will probably learn a thing or two from these kids' positive attitude in the face of adversity.

Rating: 3 out of 5