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Brooklyn Castle - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Brooklyn Castle
Directing: B-
Writing: B
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B-

If you think a documentary about kids playing chess doesn't sound all that exciting, well, you're kind of right. I'll just say right up front that Brooklyn Castle is a fine movie, but neither is is particularly remarkable; there's no reason not to wait until you can watch it on DVD or even television.

Director Katie Dellamaggiore takes the same approach here as so many other documentaries about specialized academic competitions have before it: she follows several select students, gives us a glimpse into their home lives, and attempts to get us to root for them to win, and in all likelihood one or more of them will succeed in a likely way. That seems to be a rule. I had to wonder: do they just follow a ton of kids around with cameras in the beginning, and then just weed out the ones that clearly aren't going to go far along the way? That way, by the time the Big Competition comes, the audience will be guaranteed a happy ending somewhere.

I guess that's what the movies need, even documentaries like this. Some shred of hope. A young woman wins a four-year college scholarship, and it's a wonderful success story. But what about all the other kids who competed against her, who are just as bright and come from just as much hardship? They don’t make for marketable stories.

Not that I'm complaining about that particularly. The school focused on here, Intermediate School 318, is a middle school with nearly three-quarters of its student body living in poverty, and yet they have won dozens of national chess championships. This is undeniably fascinating, as, at least as portrayed in the film, it totally changes the social dynamic of the student body. At this school, the geeks are the stars. It's all the more amazing given their age group.

But Dellamaggiore follows them to a lot of regional and national championships -- a lot -- over the course of a couple of years. Part of the intent is clearly to show how the school struggles in the face of crippling budget cuts coming no less than twice a year, which is pretty depressing. Still, it gets a little tedious. You can only watch so many shots of kids playing chess before you start to get a little bored, unless you're really into chess yourself. And this movie isn't aimed at audiences interested in chess per se, but at audiences interested in innovative approaches to academic achievement, which this school clearly has in spades.

A decade ago there was a fairly similar documentary called Spellbound, about young kids in spelling bees. One would also expect such a film to be tedious and dull, and yet that one was almost shockingly exciting. It's all about the editing with a film like this: when done right, it doesn't matter what the subject is, you can make it genuinely suspenseful, which that film was. The difference with Brooklyn Castle, though, is the doorway into the activity on the audience's part. Audiences saw immediately in Spellbound whether or not the kids advanced to the next level. In Brooklyn Castle, which is really heavy on tournament scenes, you just see a bunch of kids pushing pieces around a game board.

What's left is to become emotionally invested in these kids' future, which I did. I just wished I cared more than I did. It comes down to the storytelling, which should absorb rather than distract you. In one scene a kid tells us that his dad died a month before 9/11, "in 2000." Why include that kind of misinformation? I couldn't tell if it was to highlight the child's emotional background or his dubious education. Maybe both?

The cinematography, at least, is pretty impressive. These are middle school kids; how on earth did they manage to get all those shots of kids in hallways and classrooms without any of the kids appearing to be aware of the camera? Desensitization due to omnipresence? Hidden cameras? However they did it, you really felt like a fly on the wall in those classrooms. In a few cases, there are even smooth tracking shots running past crowds of kids moving between classes.

Brooklyn Castle is still a worthwhile story about a very impressive Brooklyn middle school overcoming significant odds stacked against them; there's just no particular need to rush out and see it in a theatre. This would be much more at home on television. Its underlying message of keeping after-school programs funded is absolutely worthwhile. So here, I'll just do this little favor for them: if you want to help you can make donations here. Anyone with any interest in supporting the cause doesn't need to pay movie-theatre prices for the movie.

Rochelle Ballantyne strives to be the best chess player in BROOKLYN CASTLE.

Overall: B-
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