Eugenio Derbez is as an inspirational teacher working in a deprived part of Mexico in this sincere, conventional drama


Source: Sundance Film Festival


Dir: Christopher Zalla. US. 2023. 127mins

Telling the inspirational true story of a teacher who refused to let his students be defined by their modest means, Radical is a fairly straightforward drama in which the predictable arc is matched by its heartfelt sincerity. Eugenio Derbez plays Sergio Juarez Correa, an instructor in the impoverished community of Matamoros, Mexico, who wanted to prove that standardised tests weren’t the only way to measure a child’s intelligence, instead encouraging his pupils to think for themselves. Boosted by some lovely performances from its young actors, writer-director Christopher Zalla’s sometimes-creaky feel-good film is most affecting when it explores how some children can have their future taken away only too soon. 

It’s ironic that a film about the importance of breaking out of preconceived notions and embracing original thinking ends up itself hewing a little too closely to formula 

Zalla won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize in 2007 for Sangre De Mi Sangre, and his latest launched at the Park City festival as well, where it took the Festival Favourite award. Derbez’s stardom has only been bolstered by his appearance in the Oscar-winning CODA, another film that premiered in Sundance, and Radical’s recognisable one-good-teacher trappings could make it an appealing theatrical play. 

Radical takes place in 2011. Sergio (Derbez) is teaching in Matamoros, where his earnest efforts to reach his 12-year-old students are thwarted by the poverty and crime surrounding them. Out of ideas — and frustrated by the rundown school’s lack of resources — he tries to get his pupils access to a computer so that they can begin to access information from across the world. In the process, he also hopes they break out of the old-fashioned schooling mindset that favours rote memorisation and mindless recounting of facts. 

With help from cinematographer Mateo Londono’s striking but grim photography, which illustrates the community’s destitution without wallowing in it, Zalla asks he viewer to appreciate the dirre situation of these students. Gangs try to lure them away from their studies, while the school’s higher-ups, in the form of Daniel Haddad’s apathetic Chucho, seem resigned to the reality that they can do very little. Sergio disagrees, and soon we watch him reach out to one student after another, catering to his or her specific interests. For class clown Nico (Danilo Guardiola), it’s encouraging him to express himself. For Paloma (Jennifer Trejo), it’s helping inspire her to pursue a passion that might seem impossible to achieve: becoming an astronaut.

Thankfully, Derbez doesn’t oversell his familiar role, although it’s a performance that’s more about being emotionally genuine than delivering delicate nuance. As a character, Sergio doesn’t have a lot of shading, but Derbez commits fully to this teacher’s belief in his students, wanting to guide them on a path that might help take them out of Matamoros. Unfortunately, Derbez isn’t always well-served by some melodramatic plotting in which one of the worst-case scenarios for this community occurs, ending in a tragedy that feels orchestrated rather than developing organically from the characters and their circumstances. 

Radical is often enlivened by Derbez’s young costars, who give unaffected performances. Trejo is especially strong as Paloma, a dreamer who lives with her ailing father by a towering garbage dump, the stars she’s trying to reach seemingly so far out of her grasp. There’s nothing cutesy about the child actors, although they do sometimes have to strain when Radical goes for dramatic fireworks in its final third.  

Audiences will be able to guess the twists and turns that occur over the film’s two-plus-hours, although it’s not so much the plot as the observations that resonate. Badgered about getting the school’s pitiful standardised test scores up, Sergio argues that holding onto memorable facts and historical dates isn’t as important as learning how to learn — a radical notion at a time when educational institutions were fixated on measurable indicators to prove that students are doing well academically. Radical makes it clear how poverty and lack of opportunity further incentivise children to give up on their education, leaving them without hope or options. It’s ironic, then, that a film about the importance of breaking out of preconceived notions and embracing original thinking ends up itself hewing a little too closely to formula. 

Production company: 3Pas Studios

International sales: The Film Sales Company, 

Producers: Ben Odell, Eugenio Derbez, Joshua Davis

Screenplay: Christopher Zalla, based on an article by Joshua Davis

Cinematography: Mateo Londono 

Production design: Juan Santiso

Editing: Eugenio Richer 

Main cast: Eugenio Derbez, Daniel Haddad, Gilberto Barraza, Jennifer Trejo, Mia Fernanda Solis, Danilo Guardiola