There’s an irresistible cinematic appeal to watching kids dedicate themselves to fundamentally non-kid-like practices like competitive ballroom dancing or studying etymology to ease their way in spelling bees. Following in the footsteps of earlier documentaries that chronicle such earnestly precocious behavior is Brooklyn Castle, a film about a middle school in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn that’s home to a successful chess team. Indifferently structured but centered around charming characters, the doc starts off as a chronicle of the scholastic chess year, but becomes a compelling plea on behalf of the importance of afterschool programs.
A public school where the majority of the students come from below-the-poverty-line households, I.S. 318 has given its chess stars a place of prominence typically occupied by sports captains—banners touting their wins adorn the halls. The team appears to be dominated by African-American students, which is another pleasant twist on expectations surrounding the game. Dedicated teachers patiently coach the team while chaperoning it on trips to tournaments that for many, offer a rare opportunity to travel outside the state. Among the kids followed are the thoughtful Alexis, the son of immigrant parents with high expectations; Pobo, a gregarious team leader who runs for student body president and tries to help with the budget cuts the school faces; Justus, a prodigy who still has to learn how to accept defeat; and Rochelle, whose aspirations to become the first African-American female chess master are challenged by an increased workload at school.
Not quite teens but not really children either, the film’s subjects harbor thrillingly huge dreams, work hard, and approach chess with an impressive devotion. Watching one team member comfort another who’s crushed by a loss is touching and tragic in equal measure. It’s a shame that the film feels so loosely organized, only coming into focus toward the end as national championships, acceptance results for the city’s magnet high schools, fundraising, and a chance at a scholarship come together to provide some tension and forward momentum. But the film’s slackness remains secondary to the appeal of its characters, an unobtrusively loveable bunch. Through the chess program it studies, Brooklyn Castle provides a hopeful affirmation of the American dream at a time in which growing income inequality and cuts in social services can make class mobility seem more and more difficult.