'Critical Thinking' Review: John Leguizamo Turns Inner-City Teens Into Chess Champs In This Powerful, Inspiring Drama

There are plenty of movies where inner-city kids with troubled lives get inspired by their teachers. But you've never seen one like Critical Thinking, which takes that formula and puts a different kind of intellectual twist on it by focusing on a group of Black and Latinx kids in 1998 who were determined to become national chess champions. In the face of underwhelming support by school administrators, troubled family dynamics, and a world that never gives them the opportunities they deserve, these kids were driven to be better than the criminals or underachievers everyone expected them to be. And it's all thanks to a teacher who never gave up on them.

John Leguizamo stars as Mr. Mario Martinez, a teacher at Miami Jackson Senior High School who leads an elective course called "Critical Thinking," which is basically a class where kids learn how to play chess and apply the mentality it takes to play the game to their own lives. He attempts to stimulate his class intellectually as much as he can, even Cornelia, the girl who never wants to answer any questions and really doesn't care about what's going on in class. But no matter how often he's rebuffed, even when she says she's not there during attendance, he never stops giving her a chance.

There are four breakout students in the class who form the school's chess team that is hungry to become national chess champions. Sedrick (Corwin Tuggles) is the most dedicated and hard-working of the group who has to deal with a father (Michael K. Williams) constantly trying to bring him down, whether it's by beating him in chess or by completely being checked out of his life, having never recovered after the death of Sedrick's mother. Ito (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) has a short fuse but a passion for the game, though he's constantly having to work late to support his family, making it difficult for him to balance tournaments and responsibility. It leaves him constantly contemplating taking the wrong path just to make ends meet. Rodelay (Angel Bismark Curiel) is the mouthy one in the group, sometimes a little too cocky, but also a fiercely loyal friend. And finally, Gil (Will Hochman), who comes aboard the team despite having a confrontation with Sedrick awhile back after Gil accidentally stepped on his sneaker and got a punch in the face for his troubles. There's also Jeffry Batista who comes into play in the second half of the movie as a student named Marcel, and I don't want to spoil how, but just know that he brings a unique presence to the team as well.

Each of these kids have their own struggles and shortcomings, but they become a tight-knit group. While it might sound like Critical Thinking has familiar Disney-like sensibilities that we've seen in plenty of their sports movies, including the chess-based film The Queen of Katwe, let me tell you that this movie is much more raw and far less sappy. It doesn't hold back the reality of the danger these kids face everyday, and it doesn't play nice when it comes to teachable moments throughout. It's an honest portrayal of these broken school systems that have to contend with teens who are on the verge of becoming criminals every day, mostly because they're just a product of the environment around them. That's established early on in the movie with a shocking turn of events.

Unfortunately, due to the school's constant struggle with misbehavior, the Critical Thinking class occasionally becomes a makeshift sort of detention for students acting out. We're not necessarily talking about kids who are actively choosing to make trouble, but teens who are merely a product of their corrupt and even criminal environment, teens with parents who are already sending them down the wrong path, kids who have to work school nights to help their family get by. One of these kids ends up in the class for the day, but isn't really keen to engage during school. However, when the bell rings, he swipes a chess set to take home, clearly wanting to do something more than be obstinate. Sadly, he never gets a chance to prove it, because an altercation on the way home results in him suddenly being shot in the head by a drug dealer.

This moment, which happens very early in the movie, completely threw me for a loop and sent my jaw to the floor. What felt like the predictable beginning of an inspiring story about this kid who turns his life around by taking in an interest in chess was literally stopped dead in its tracks. This scene sets up the lingering presence of either the threat of becoming a cog in the crime machine or a victim of it. It's business as usual for this urban school, tragic but ultimately expected in this part of Miami. These kids are always faced with opportunities, sometimes even encouragement, to throw their lives away instead of following any dreams they might have to be more than a criminal statistic. Here, it takes courage to have ambition and be smart, because it could end up getting you killed.

Critical Thinking could easily be described as Dangerous Minds meets Searching for Bobby Fischer, but it brings so much more to the table. John Leguizamo also directs this movie, and he's not shy about being blunt when it comes to these issues facing inner-city kids. That might be because he spent his formative years in areas like this, with kids like this, in New York City. But it's also because the script from Dito Montiel (A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints) doesn't bring heavy sentimentality to these proceedings. Leguizamo's character isn't written in a cheesy fashion, even though some of his lectures can come off a a bit corny, that's simply an accurate portrayal of how some of the best teachers treat their classroom. Outside of school, Mr. Martinez isn't afraid to get real with his students, making sure his words land very firmly in their ears while never talking down to them. He talks to them like he's their friend and mentor, and not just an authority figure, and Leguizamo's performance comes with such rich authenticity without feeling like he's trying to be inspiring.Critical Thinking Review

Even more credit goes to the stellar young cast for bringing these characters to life with such raw, natural passion. Corwin Tuggles brings a quiet power to Sedrick, who always seems to be contemplating his next step into the future. Angel Bismark Curiel puts on a tough, smart-ass exterior as Rodelay, but touchingly shows his vulnerable, softer side in one particularly powerful moment that you'll know when you see it. Will Hochman brings a subtlety to Gil as the white kid who feels a little out of place in a school full of kids of color. They're also a big part of making chess exciting on screen, largely thanks to their tactics to shake up their opponents a bit, but also due to the laser focus and speed they bring during matches.

But for me, the most remarkable performance comes from Jorge Lendeborg Jr., who you might remember from movies like Bumblebee or Alita: Battle Angel, and should go out of your way to see in Brigsby Bear and Love, Simon. His character Ito has the most heavy-lifting to do in this film as the one kid who struggles most with his future. Ito has the pressure of trying to support his family, tempted by the opportunity to make more money by working the streets for a local drug dealer. Lendeborg Jr. brings an intensity to this role that lingers in his eyes throughout every scene. There are several moments throughout the film where you can feel the emotion bubbling within him, trying not to let tears roll down his face as he attempts to maintain a tough exterior. This is the fear of a kid who is trying to be tough but can't help but feel lost and scared at the same time. It's truly a breakout performance.

What's great about Critical Thinking is it doesn't gloss over the challenges that inner-city kids face everyday, and it doesn't try to sugarcoat them either. Furthermore, unlike some movies that feature a group of urban teens inspired by a teacher and their lessons, it doesn't make it seem like merely winning a chess tournament will make all the problems in their lives go away. It's one victory that might make everything else feel less overwhelming, at least for a little bit.

More importantly, Critical Thinking just might inspire more teens who feel stuck in this same position to take a chance on something. The reason representation matters is because it's truly inspiring to see someone who looks like you achieving something that you didn't know was possible. There's a pivotal scene in Critical Thinking where Mr. Martinez talks with his class about Black and Latinx innovators and pioneers being erased from history books, because they were written by white men. Leguizamo's character says:

"I want to ask you that whenever you don't see a familiar image that you feel like you can relate to in whatever it is that you're moved by, that you dig deeper than your dusty old Britannica Encyclopedia. We people of color have been everywhere since time and memoriam, and if you pick up one of these bad boys, and you open it up, and you don't recognize yourself, I hope you realize that this was their oversight. That this was their mistake to paint you out."

It's a speech that doesn't feel contrived or ham-fisted and it's unfortunately all too relevant as the crux of the movie's message. With Critical Thinking, John Leguizamo has delivered an outstanding directorial achievement that isn't just inspiring because some kids won a chess tournament. It's inspiring because a group of kids who are often overlooked and shoved aside chose to push forward, ignore everyone who counted them out, and achieved something that they could truly be proud of. Perhaps more importantly, it gives the next generation a chance to see themselves in future history books.

/Film Rating: 9 out of 10