Sundance 2023: ‘Radical’ Reminds Us of the Great Power of Teachers
by Alex Billington
January 24, 2023
Everyone remembers that one teacher they had growing up that changed their lives. There is always at least one teacher who goes above and beyond, who approaches teaching as something more than just a job, or a chance to make kids remember some facts. My favorite teacher growing up was one named Mrs. Richards. Radical is a remarkable film from Mexico made by a filmmaker named Christopher Zalla, best known for his Sundance 2007 film Padre Nuestro before (I actually watched this one at Sundance and reviewed it way back then). He returns to Sundance again 16 years later to premiere his latest film, based on a true story about a “radical” Mexican teacher in a small border town called Matamoros (see Google Maps). Going into this film, I was initially expecting a light-hearted comedy, about kids feuding with their teacher. What I was not expecting was to discover a generous, warm-hearted, emotional story about a teacher and his students working together to overcome adversity and carelessness. Education matters, but teachers matter the most.
In Zalla’s Radical, Mexican actor Eugenio Derbez stars as Sergio, who takes on a job at Jose Urbina Lopez Elementary in Matamoros as the new sixth grade teacher. His students are a mix of very poor kids as well as better off locals, and he’s supposed to be preparing them for a nationwide test Mexico uses to rank schools & teachers and measure their learning abilities. But this isn’t what he’s interested in. He really wants to teach them, not cram equations and definitions into their minds. He wants to help them learn to be smart people equipped with the right kind of thinking to achieve anything in the real world. It’s not what he’s teaching, but how a teacher teaches his students that makes all the difference. He encourages the kids to think for themselves and ask any question that might come to mind (they start with “why do boats float?”), allowing them to figure out the answers through curiosity and research. It is a “radical” method but it shouldn’t be. This kind of teaching should be what all elementary schools use nowadays, it’s only radical because it’s going against what has been the norm for a hundred years before. This story proves it’s time to change that.
After appearing in the Best Picture winner CODA from Sundance a few years ago, Eugenio Derbez is back in yet another winning role as the “radical” teacher Sergio Juarez. I’m consistently impressed with his more dramatic performances, which are earnest and authentic yet also entertaining and witty enough to make you feel like he could really be your friend, too. The story focuses on two of his students, one is a girl whose father lives in a shack by the sea, and the other is a boy whose brother is in the local gang, trying to get him to leave school so he can be their newest recruit. The girl is one of the smartest in his class, and Sergio fights for her, battling the principal and even the local mayor in an effort to make sure she gets the support she needs. Her story is the one that comes from real life, and the film is based on a 2013 Wired article about his class. Zalla adapts this story into a script that is thankfully not the laugh-out-loud comedy that it could be, rather something more moving and appropriately inspiring. I am so glad I took the time to watch this film.
By the end I was wiping away tears. Not just because of what happens in the story, but because I could feel the power of teaching coming through the screen. It’s all about that cliche-but-true idea that one teacher can change your life. It’s a film about the radical power of a wonderful educator who goes against expectations. I also appreciate that it doesn’t shy from honest brutality of the real world, a reminder that good education isn’t easy, it takes great effort. It’s not as simple as just hiring the right person to take on the job, they have to be willing to meet the kids on their level, respect their way of thinking, and devise teaching methods that actually help grow their minds. In Radical, there is also a battle against the town and the authorities – all they care about is passing this test. As Sergio reminds them multiple times, passing this test doesn’t make them smart, it doesn’t mean they’ll grow up to be intelligent, it’s just a test. This film is a beautiful reminder that great teachers truly make the world go ’round, and we must support them as much as we possibly can.