Rating: 3/5“Imagine a school where the cool kids are the chess team” proclaims the poster for Brooklyn Castle, the new documentary by Katie Dellamaggiore about the young chess players of I.S. 318. And the film does, in fact, immediately inform us that chess is for “geeks,” as the school’s principal reminds us. It is somewhat surprising that such an out-of-date notion would be used as a hook for a documentary in 2012, though Brooklyn Castle unfortunately indulges in a series of outdated stereotypes for the sole purpose of countering them, of expressing surprise when a child of a certain socioeconomic status contradicts the stereotype. There are constant reminders of how “improbable” it is that lower-income kids would be good at chess, a patently absurd statement, but one which we are called on to believe.
You can directly see the effects of these sorts of stereotypes in Rochelle, one of the top junior high chess players in the country. When we first see Rochelle, she discusses her concerns about the nerd stereotype, how she believes it hurts her socially to the point that she is afraid to talk about chess to friends. She, along with several other students from I.S. 318, all have amazing stories to tell, stories that go far past their commitment and passion for chess. We meet Pobo, a young man wise beyond his years who encourages others on his team, often at his own expense. There is the intelligent and mature Alexis, and Justus, new to the school and exceptionally gifted at chess, plus many others. These fascinating students are the undeniable strength behind this documentary.
Rochelle seems adrift, however, searching for her own identity as all young teens do, but also struggling with the identity others are placing on her. She often plays in female-only competitions, and mentions frequently that there are almost no other female chess players on her team. As proud as she undoubtedly is of her accomplishments, one wonders what she feels when the chess coach says more about her race and gender than her exceptional chess skills when praising her at junior high graduation. But Brooklyn Castle is, at its heart, essentially about funding for public education, which is likely why students are so often seen as statistics rather than individuals.
The struggles the school goes through for funding to send students to tournaments, to provide them experiences with chess masters and other opportunities, are excruciating. Families write letters to politicians, meetings are held, fundraisers and carnivals are essential to keep the chess club intact, despite it being the highest-ranked junior high chess club in the country. Though it is well-known that educational funding is often the first thing cut when budgets get tight, and extracurricular funding in particular is often eliminated in favor of core curriculum needs, seeing the effects on individual students is revelatory.
Despite this, there is a lot of filler in a film that had room to discuss so much more than budgets. The pressures on the students from multiple sides are glossed over, and many issues are only briefly touched upon and never revisited. There is an implied cost to the students via lack of socialization, though beyond the repeated framing of chess players as “nerds” there is no exploration of this issue. The chess coach at I.S. 318 is a remarkably frustrating character, someone who brags about being conservative “except” for school funding, who engages in the same stereotypes the documentary embraces and who gives hilariously clumsy advice to his students. The film even shows a bit of bias in defending a particularly harsh comment to students by dubbing in a Johnny Cash song to try to re-frame his insults as a lighthearted teaching moment. It is not convincing.
Brooklyn Castle finally finds its footing in the third act, after it discards the filler and repetition and painfully staged encounters and brings us into the students’ world of chess. When they play a series of tournaments, the tension of the matches is palpable, stress twisting the kid’s faces, their timers implying wildly differing playing styles; in some cases, futures are literally at stake. It is the one time the film truly allows the students’ life experiences to direct the narrative, and when we see the impact of chess on these kids’ lives, we finally understand the importance of Brooklyn Castle’s message.