The last time Mexican superstar Eugenio Derbez had a movie at Sundance in 2021. The movie was code, and not only did it win all the top prizes at the party that year, it also won three Oscars, including Best Picture. He had a supporting role in that film as an inspirational high school music teacher, and now in Radical, who just had its world premiere at Sundance on opening night at the Eccles Theater, writes another inspirational teacher. This time it’s a true story and one where he plays the lead role of Sergio Juarez.
Juarez (full name Sergio Juarez Correa) was the subject of a Wired magazine article by Josh Davis detailing his rather unbelievable story as an unorthodox teacher in a poor Mexican border town called Matamoros. It’s a forgotten, impoverished town with little hope for his children, especially in elementary school, where he uses a teaching method he came across by accident when watching a TED Talks video where the students lead the curriculum in learning what they want to learn, not what officials dictate through testing and other methods. Derbez takes on the role, choosing the comedic personality for which he is now so loved not only in Mexico but around the world. As in code, he sheds every hint of that, displaying a strong dramatic talent that brings this man and his story to life.
Yes, we’ve seen dozens of inspiring teacher films in the past – all the way from Goodbye Mr. Chips and To sir, with love until Conrack, The Marva Collins Story, Stand and Deliver, Dead Poets Society, Lean on Me and countless others. However, this small, virtually unknown story of a man determined to unlock the human potential of children who are unlikely to ever beat the conditions of their hometown is unique and special because of its setting, which employs improvisational techniques and a calm, gritty visual style in which the viewer is treated almost like another student in class, writer-director Christopher Zalla returns triumphantly to Sundance 16 years after winning the Grand Prize here for his first film, 2007’s Father Nuestrowhich also featured Derbez.
After setting up the To sir, with love nature of this school, and the children in the sixth grade, we meet Sergio. He’s flipped all the desks in his classroom and welcomes the incredulous looks from his new students as he tries to convince them to board these “lifeboats” in the sea of make-believe for the kind of off-the-wall lesson they’ve never had before. encountered. We soon see that there is method behind his madness, but he finds himself up against other teachers, his principal, and eventually the district chief who question the wisdom of what he is doing. Along the way, the focus is on a number of kids, mostly newcomers to acting, who all get their moment in the sun – especially his main find, Paloma (a great Jennifer Trejo), who, despite the poverty-stricken living conditions she endures and the migrant father who barely makes ends meet shows remarkable aptitude under Sergio’s tutelage as a rocket scientist in the making. She’s also based on a real person, and that story is right on Lake incredible. There are others, like the lovelorn Nico, Lupe (a fine Mia Fernanda Solis) and more who are also challenged by the dark world of cartels and bullies around them, but still thrive in the light of Sergio’s faith.
The Spanish-language film doesn’t soften his story or the hardships along the way, not even a nervous breakdown when Sergio is suspended for refusing to give the “test” required of the school’s students. You can almost smell the grime of this dead end corner of the world, America’s promise across the ocean, but more importantly promises of inspiring teachers like Sergio who help them live a better life. Derbez has never been better than in this movie, a movie that’s for sale and, if there’s any justice, will be immediately snapped up by a distributor looking for a feel-good true story with real potential to become a to make a difference.
Derbez produces through his 3Pas Studios along with co-founder Ben Odell and Davis. Film Sales Corp. is the sales agent.