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'Brooklyn Castle' documentary has all the right moves

Chess Playing

Checkmate. "Brooklyn Castle," a marvelous documentary by Katie Dellamaggiore, turns a sympathetic camera eye on one of the richest subjects imaginable: the nationally recognized chess team of Intermediate School 318 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a multiethnic wonder of individual talents and specific, personal stories.

The public middle school's assistant principal, John Galvin, mentions on camera that I.S. 318 has developed such a strong reputation for its chess prowess, the school in some quarters is referred to as "the Yankees of chess."

The kids we get to know in "Brooklyn Castle" are remarkable in so many ways, and remarkably good screen company. They range from Rochelle Ballantyne, a sparkling gem driven to become the first African-American female to achieve the "master" level, to Pobo Efekoro, a politically savvy boy running for class president.

The film follows these and other chess fiends to the U.S. Chess Federation Grade Championships in Dallas, to a snowy competition in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and to the Junior High Nationals in Minneapolis.

How is this film different from "Spellbound," which gave us a good look at the spelling bee universe, or other documentaries about young people embroiled in fierce competition, while eyeing their futures? It's not so different, really. But "Brooklyn Castle" shows real and serious interest in what's going on with the subjects' lives away from the chessboard. The school's chess program was seriously imperiled by the bank meltdown of 2008, just as Dellamaggiore began filming. As such this is a quintessential recessionary document, showing what must be done (but shouldn't have to be) when a public school's community is forced to agitate and raise money on its own to keep a great thing going.

See it, and I dare you not to care about what happens to these kids, these Yankees of chess. As Elizabeth Vicary, the coach and chess teacher and guiding light, says at one point: Chess teaches all sorts of kids how "to solve your own problems about how you teach yourself things." It's not a metaphor for life; it's life itself, revealed in all its options. I don't know diddly about chess, and I still loved it.

mjphillips@tribune.com

'Brooklyn Castle' -- 4 stars
MPAA rating:
PG (for language)
Running time: 1:41
Opens: Friday at Landmark's Century Centre Cinema

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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