Sundance review: Sweet classroom drama 'Radical' will leave you sobbing – New York Post

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PARK CITY, UTAH — The 2023 Sundance Film Festival kicked off Thursday with the sublimely moving “Radical,” a Spanish-language gem about a real teacher’s impact on a poor Mexican border town.
Yes, the professor-shaking-up-students shtick has been done on-screen many times before, from “Dead Poets Society” to “To Sir, With Love” and “Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit.” But two factors make “Radical” feel, well, radical: the story being driven by the unique culture of Mexico, and the kids, all exceptional actors, being so devastatingly young.
Sergio (Eugenio Derbez, who also played the inspiring music teacher in “CODA”) arrives in Matamoros, across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas, for a job that nobody wanted — teaching sixth graders with some of the lowest test scores in the country.
Running time: 122 minutes. Not yet rated. In Spanish with English subtitles.
However, unconventional Sergio — based on the real-life Sergio Juárez Correa — is determined not to teach to the test, but to allow the students’ curiosity and funny questions to loosely guide the curriculum. 
His openness and zany exercises allow the shy students — like the brilliant aspiring astronaut Paloma (Jennifer Trejo) — to finally flourish instead of skipping class, resigned to what everyone else says is their disappointing fate.
The most affecting example is Nico, a small and sensitive 12-year-old, whose older brother enlists him to deliver illegal contraband for his gang. Nico wrongly considers himself dumb and futureless, and believes that violence is his only option. 
Actor Danilo Guardiola, meek and soft-spoken in the part, has the viewer in the palm of his hand as he tries to patch up an old boat on the beach.
His classmate Lupe (a precocious Mia Fernanda Solis), meanwhile, shows signs of deeper philosophical thinking and starts to dream of being a teacher herself. But her mother demands she stay at home and take care of her younger siblings.
Sergio at first butts heads with the school’s principal, called the Director (Daniel Haddad), who doubts his kooky methods but changes his tune as the kids grow and become interested in learning. Teach also goes head-to-head with the corrupt local government, which promised the school a computer lab but squandered the grant money.
Tried-and-true storylines, yes, but you can’t blame actual events for having happened. And Derbez’s natural eccentricity and boyishness strip away the larger-than-life force that is usually associated with roles like this one.
The well-known story beats are also given renewed vitality by the young actors, whom director Christopher Zalla expertly steers away from being typical overemoting movie kids. They boost the stakes with their genuineness and natural innocence. So often motivational-teacher stories revolve around high schoolers on the cusp of escape, but forlorn 12-year-olds stuck at home really tug at the heartstrings.
Cinemas have been absent a strong tear-jerker for a while (no criers to be found on this year’s awards season roster, unless you wept at “Tár”), but Zalla teaches a lesson on how to deliver an affirming, emotional gut punch.

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