Stop me if you’ve seen this one before: A free-spirited teacher takes a stake in a classroom full of underprivileged youth and unleashes their true potential. This stale and sometimes patronizing premise is recycled in Christopher Zalla’s “Radical,” a sentimental drama that is based on a true story but boxes neatly into familiar packaging. The title is nearly oxymoronic: It boldly belies how close to convention the film hews.
Set at an under resourced school in Matamoros, Mexico, the film charts the development of a group of eighth graders after Sergio (Eugenio Derbez) transfers in as their teacher. Drawing side eyes from fellow staff (“the key is to discipline them,” one advises), Sergio adopts a novel method: He lets the students steer their education, and encourages them to seek out knowledge through experiments and play.
Sergio’s approach is admirable. But the screenplay distills each of his students into a single salient problem: the one with gang ties; the one saddled with caring for younger siblings; the impoverished one whose timidity veils genius. The film trades in the trope of the angelic, sage child of the slums just waiting for a galvanizing mentor. (One of Sergio’s students constructs a telescope out of garbage heap scraps.)
“Do you want to learn from books or from life?” a gang member flaunting a gun asks one of the kids early in the movie, vocalizing the only two paths this movie permits for its young ensemble. Despite its foundation in reality, “Radical” is as by the books as it gets.
Rated PG-13 for some gang violence, lots of grandstanding. Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes. In theaters.