I.S. 318 chess was already the stuff of legend before “Brooklyn Castle” director Katie Dellamaggiore brought her camera crew to the Brooklyn-based middle school. Working with few resources, the public school helped create one of the best chess teams in the country. That’s why the documentary begins with the school’s second-place finish in the junior high division of the U.S. Chess Federation SuperNationals back in 2009. It was an upset and a disappointment for a school in the one place where disappointment is rare.
The story of a year in the life of the chess team really kicks off in the fall of 2009, after Rochelle Ballantyne went to the Brooklyn Technical High School with hopes of becoming the first female African-American chess master, and two of her teammates return as eighth-graders. Pono Efekoro is a confident young man, despite his family still mourning the death of his father, while Alexis Paredes is more serious in attitude. Three more students are highlighted in the film, including one who’s trying to use chess as a way to combat his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
It also tells the stories of assistant principal and coach John Galvin and chess teacher Elizabeth Vicary, who suddenly have to deal with recession-based cuts that not only threaten the team’s ability to travel to matches, but the team’s very existence.
The 85 members of the I.S. 318 chess team have won 30 national championship chess titles, which is more than any other junior high school in the country. Albert Einstein, whose chess skill level was around 1,800, would have ranked fourth on this team in ability. Their 2012 High School National Championship victory made them instant celebrities in the city, with Mayor Michael Bloomberg honoring the team with a ceremony. But at its heart, “Brooklyn Castle” shows you the ups and downs of a journey–with chess as just the backdrop.
Telling the stories of five members of the chess team at a school in a neighborhood where most of its residents live below the poverty line should be a shoe-in for Oscar consideration. Dellamaggiore does a great job of focusing on the lives of the students, teachers, administrators and parents who all have a stake in the future of a school that continually has to adjust to budget cut after budget cut to extracurricular activities. While a cynic could deduce that the lesson from the film is that the only thing holding New York City public school students back is City Hall, the perseverance displayed by the young ones triumphs in the face of every jaded individual.
“Castle” manages to be a coming-of-age story, a story about the current public school system in New York City, a story of educators rising above all odds and a story about the power a game can possess. It is a story about how skill and commitment to your craft can (almost) overcome all boundaries.