The feature debut of director Katie Dellamaggiore, the documentary is now available on demand from FilmBuff.
While this institution holds more championship chess titles than any other middle school in the nation (26), the film opens with them experiencing loss — well, second place, at least, among 862 teams. They win so often that not winning is a shock to the kids’ systems.
The bulk of Brooklyn Castle finds them prepping for the next trip to nationals, but facing a road more roughly paved than ever. Not only do these children — mostly African-American and highly disadvantaged financially — have their everyday pressures, but face an impending test that will determine which 600 students among 15,000 applicants will be allowed into a specialized — read: quality — high school.
And on top of that, the U.S. recession hits, and New York City’s billion-dollar deficit threatens to derail school enrichment programs, such as chess. And for these kids, chess is what they live for — more than a game, it’s an anchor attached to the straight-and-narrow, a beacon showing them a way toward a bright future.
On those nonfic-film levels of feel-good and good-for-you, Brooklyn Castle works. It’s like an offshoot of Waiting for “Superman,” demonstrating the tangible value of extracurricular education beyond the three Rs that public schools can provide, when only someone cares to.
The film is too long, however; at some point, Dellamaggiore hits a repeat cycle before the final act kicks in. Stories of pint-sized chess champs aren’t new, and the best I’ve encountered were told in print, but this may inspire viewers mildly. It certainly won’t hurt. —Rod Lott