PARK CITY, Utah — Mexican actor and producer Eugenio Derbez opened this year’s Sundance Film Festival with Radical, in which he stars as middle-school teacher Sergio who rejects the discipline-based instruction favored by his colleagues and embarks on an experiment to follow his students’ lead. He succeeds beyond anyone’s wildest expectations—even as one teacher can only do so much when violence and poverty are also at work.
Radical —which won the festival’s Audience Award— is filled with hope and promise, but the film balances its joyful notes with deep and persistent trauma, creating a tear-jerker for the ages. I cried, and so did everyone I’ve spoken to about the film.
To make it that much more poignant, the film is based on a true story, adapted from a Wired cover article that featured the photo of a Mexican girl, Paloma, calling her “the next Steve Jobs.”
Latino Rebels met up with Derbez, who described the film as “in the Marvel space, a superhero movie… It’s beautiful and it’s different. It’s raw, but it’s touching.” For him, it’s “not the classic teacher movie that we always see: that the teacher comes and first he can’t and then at the end, he succeeds.”
Instead, Radical is about the need for real superheroes, the ones without powers or all the answers, but who still find a way to change the world. Over the course of the film, we watch Sergio’s approach transform his students, opening up their curiosity and their ambitions.
Paloma begins the film as a shy girl bullied for her poverty—she lives next to the dump and her father earns the family’s modest living from salvaging metal from the junk heap. But when she begins to really engage with school, she blossoms, revealing her hidden genius.
“The movie deserves to be seen by the entire world,” Derbez said, clearly proud of the project. “It tells you that any kid, anywhere in the world, no matter if they’re in the worst conditions like Paloma, anyone has potential.”
That message has large implications. “Right now, we’re teaching kids how to memorize, not how to learn,” said Derbez, and that has to change. For people in Latin America who can see themselves in the film’s rough neighborhood —and Derbez recounts several of them stopping him on the street— it means pushing for a different education system, one that nurtures rather than forgets the Palomas of the world.
Radical is largely Paloma’s success story, but her classmates do not all enjoy the same fate. “We’re always fighting with the studio because they want Hollywood endings, and we don’t want Hollywood endings,” Derbez said.
So while Radical asks its audience to consider the potential our education system is squandering, it also recognizes that even the best teacher cannot do it all.
Derbez hopes that message resonates with people in the U.S., particularly as they consider the plight of Latin American immigrants. “Most of them are fleeing from violence,” he explained. “They are fleeing (in search of) just having a peaceful life or a better education. And I want (audiences in the U.S.) after watching a movie like this to understand why. I know it’s uncomfortable… to have visitors from outside. But I just asked for a little bit of empathy and understanding that we can make a difference if we try to help.”
Radical makes that call to action by presenting a complex view of Mexico. “I think Mexico is everything,” Derbez said. “I think we have everything in Mexico, we have the light side and the dark side, too. And honestly, I don’t expect people to just look at the bright side of Mexico.”
Radical has both, and that’s what makes it so powerful—a tragedy and success story at the same time, a tale filled with heartbreak and joy that wonders how much better our world might be if we honored each other more, whether in school, in our homes, or on our streets. The distance between the film’s radical vision of what the world could be and what it is what brought me to tears, and it might do the same to you.
Hopefully, it also moves enough hearts and minds so we can narrow that gap—so that more Palomas can have a fighting chance.
Radical is showing now at the Sundance Film Festival and is slated for general release later this year.
A writer and activist, Cristina Escobar is the co-founder of latinamedia.co, uplifting Latina and gender non-conforming Latinx perspectives in media. She’s a member of the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association and writes at the intersection of race, gender, and pop culture. Twitter: @cescobarandrade