Brooklyn Castle is a film about a year in the of a particularly successful junior high school chess team. The film follows a few of these students of different ages as they compete in chess tournaments. At first glance, it feels like one of the innumerable “kids competing” documentaries that spread up in the wake of Spellbound. But it’s not. It has more in common with something like American Promise than Spellbound.
SPOILERS if you possibly care about spoilers in a documentary.
The film catches up with the kids on the chess team as the school gets one of its less frequent worse-than-first finishes. At this point, we feel like we’re going to watch a bunch of kids stressed out about competing in chess.
Instead, we get something different. Due to the repercussions of the 2008 crash, the school’s budget is cut by over 10% – and this appears to not be the first cut, though it seems like it’s possibly the worst – and the chess team is forced to start raising money in a poor neighbourhood (as this school serves a very poor neighbourhood). The kids, teachers and parents have to find ways to keep this program alive (as well as their other after school programs).
Instead of just being about kids who are chess, the film soon becomes about what happens when education is de-funded and the threat that poses in particular to poorer communities. It is also a portrait of what happens for poor kids in America even at a good school, as they are streamed into programs and schools with less opportunities. Though the individuals themselves are pretty incredible kids whom you want to succeed and whose success in the film makes you happy, the systemic problems of even a quality public school like this one are so alarming that the film leaves a bittersweet taste in the mouth. (If this is what things are like at a good public school…, you wonder.)
Though a very rote documentary in terms of style, the film’s main characters, their unique skill-sets and the systemic obstacles they face despite their skill at chess make this very worth your time. It’s just a bit depressing.