• Festivals

Sundance 2023: “Radical” Goes Sundance

Teachers as heroes has long been a popular subject for movies. Think Sidney Poitier in To Sir, With Love, Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds, Jack Black in The School of Rock, Hilary Swank in Freedom Writers, Denzel Washington in The Great Debaters, Edward James Olmos in Stand and Deliver, Morgan Freeman in Lean on Me, and J.K. Simmons in Whiplash.

What most of these films have in common is that they are based on true stories. And so is Radical. What makes it one of the most talked-about and best-liked films of Sundance 2023, is its perfect mix of conflict, drama, heartfelt emotions and wonderful performances not just by the protagonist played by Eugenio Derbez, but by each of the child actors, most of them non-professional actors.

The story takes place in the Mexican border town of Matamoros, a place of no resources, severe poverty, zero hope and an abundance of gang violence. The prospect for children to survive unharmed is basically nil, never mind any chance to leave and make something of themselves.

Into these dire surroundings comes Sergio, who believes so strongly in alternative, non-conventional and radical teaching methods in order to unlock something special in his students, that he is willing to go against the school board and even the corrupt local politicians.


Writer/director Christopher Zalla adapted the screenplay from a newspaper article and cast Derbez in what may very well be his best role yet. Sergio takes an interest in his students and encourages their talents – often hidden by fear of failure and hopelessness. Danilo Guardiola Escobar plays the charismatic teenager Nico, whose future seems wrapped up in the inescapable gang he is being groomed to join and has a secret crush on his classmate Paloma (Jennifer Trejo) who lives with her sickly father next to a garbage dump and dreams of becoming an astronaut with all the scientific and technical knowledge to back it up. Lupita (Mia Fernanda Solis) is fascinated by philosophy, and Sergio introduces her to the writings of John Stuart Mill. Daniel Haddad plays Chucho, the school principal who, although at first reluctant, has a change of heart when he witnesses Sergio’s class being the only one where the students show true enthusiasm for learning.

Zalla did not exactly reinvent the wheel with his inspirational teacher story, but he made an uplifting film that is evenly paced, avoids clichés and may even surprise audiences at the end.

Derbez also serves as producer on the film and was in heavy promotional mode at the festival.

“When I was shooting the film, I always remembered how I felt at that age [of the students]”, Derbez told the AP. “And how some teachers really put a stamp on my life…I based my role on a teacher who was tough, but he was funny, too… My character has a tiny bit of comedy because that keeps them interested,” he said.

Critics were united in their opinion that the star of CODA which premiered at Sundance two years ago and ended up winning the Academy Award for Best Film, could very well have similar success with Radical. History repeating, so to speak.