There are a number of films I've fallen in love with during the 2023 Heartland International Film Festival, andthere will likely be at least a couple more before the Academy Award-qualifying film festival winds up this weekend. However, it's likely true that none of the films I've fallen in love with have hit me quite like Christopher Zalla's familiar yet remarkable Radical.
Winner of the Festival Favorite Award at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, Radical stars Eugenio Derbez as Sergio, as a teacher who arrives at Mexico's real-life José Urbina López Primary School to teach sixth grade. He does so voluntarily, a fact that bewilders the school's principal, Chucho (Daniel Haddad), who has seemingly resigned himself to teachers more worried about survival than teaching in the Matamoros school located just across the border from the U.S. in an area more known for its corruption, violence, gangs, drugs, and stark poverty than for the quality of its schools.
If you're already thinking to yourself "This sounds really familiar!," you're not incorrect. There are shades of such films as Dangerous Minds, To Sir With Love, and even Stand and Deliver. Heck, I even found myself thinking about Mr. Holland's Opus at one point.
Yet, there's something special here that is undeniable. Directing from a script he co-wrote with Joshua Davis, Christopher Zalla infuses Radical with a true sense of the radical. He has a top-notch ensemble cast led by Derbez whose work here reminds me of what happened when longtime character actor J.K. Simmons got the chance to lead with Whiplash and ended up taking him an Academy Award. It might be a stretch for Derbez to take home a golden statuette, however, his name should most certainly be remembered come awards season.
As we might expect, at first this enthusiastic new teacher's radical ways are suspect at best. Yet, as student enthusiasm grows alongside tangible results it becomes apparent that Garcia is accomplishing something special.
Of course, artistic integrity flows throughout Radical as does honest storytelling. The best teacher will never always guarantee the best results and the highest potential certainly never guarantees a journey toward success. Radical finds a perfect balance between hopefulness and truth. In addition to Derbez's fantastic work, Daniel Haddad shines as Churcho and the film's ensemble of young actors is simply outstanding with Jennifer Trejo leading the way as Paloma, a young girl whose potential is slowly revealed yet whose familial circumstances may prove insurmountable. Gilberto Barraza also shines as Paloma's father, a man who is already immersed in the corruption around him. Kudos as well to Danilo Guardiola as Nico, the class clown with a story destined to become much more complex. Guardiola is quite the find and masterfully adds layers of transparency, vulnerability, and wonder to Nico.
Lensing by Mateo Londono captures both the heartbreak and hopefulness of Radical's story and left me immersed in this world. Original music by Pascual Reyes and Juan Pablo Villa serves as a perfect companion for this story that hits all the right notes.
Globally renowned and long recognized for his comic performances, Derbez takes a myriad of chances here and turns out one of his finest performances to date as real-life teacher Sergio Juárez Correa. With heart, a little humor, and an abundance of honesty, Radical is one of the best films of 2023.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic