Brooklyn Castle: Film Review

SXSW Brooklyn Castle Poster - P 2012

SXSW Brooklyn Castle Poster - P 2012

Socioeconomic concerns bring depth to doc about pre-teen chess whizzes.

Katie Dellamaggiore's documentary centers on a successful chess team at Brooklyn's Intermediate School 318.

Poverty's no barrier to chess wizardry in Katie Dellamaggiore's Brooklyn Castle, a portrait of the astonishingly successful chess team at Brooklyn's Intermediate School 318. The feel-good doc is engaging enough to draw a respectable audience at arthouses, but distribs should work for exposure within communities like the ones this school serves.

I.S. 318, one of NYC's specialized public junior high schools, has been dominating national championships for years now; if jocks are heroes at most schools, one faculty member claims that here, "the geeks -- they are the athletes."

It's a shame Dellamaggiore wasn't around to see the birth of this phenomenon, but the mature program she encounters is impressive for both the talent of its members and the self-confidence it fosters: one of the few girls on the team, 13 year-old Rochelle Ballantyne, is on track to become the first African-American female to attain the Master rank in chess history; Pobo Efekoro, a husky seventh-grader, has had enough experience as a leader on the team he finds it easy to envision a political career.

Rather than dwelling on the cuteness and humor of its subjects, Castle emphasizes their economic position -- most come from poor families -- and the seriousness of their attempts, via chess and other academic achievements, to get into good high schools and colleges. At the same time, the school's budget is being trimmed in the wake of the financial crisis: Though the school has been able to send students on overnight trips to numerous tournaments in the past, administrators must scramble now to afford even one.

Hard economic truths aside, Dellamaggiore offers plenty of scenes of pre-teens performing mental feats beyond the reach of most viewers. Team coach Elizabeth Vicary fosters an impressive level of seriousness, noting to the filmmakers that she believes it's useful (as we watch kids prep for standardized tests in their other classes) to introduce students to areas in which the ultimate "right answers" are uncertain, and at best one can learn intelligent strategies and ways of thinking.

Small-stakes dramas unfold, mostly involving questions of determination: prodigy Justus Williams must learn how to lose one game without blowing off all the subsequent ones in a tourney; ADHD sufferer Patrick Johnston, who ranks nearly at the bottom of the team, is struggling to get into the same league, skill-wise, as his peers. None of the individual storylines has a broad enough dramatic sweep to stick with viewers for long, but their cumulative optimism ensures a warm mood on the way out of the theater.

Production Company: Rescued Media
Director: Katie Dellamaggiore
Producers: Katie Dellamaggiore, Nelson Dellamaggiore, Brian Schulz
Executive producers: Geoff Gibson, Robert McLellan
Director of photography: Brian Schulz
Music: B. Satz
Editor: Nelson Dellamaggiore
No rating, 102 minutes.