Movie Review: In 'Radical,' an unorthodox teacher in a violent Mexican border town

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On their first day sixth grade, the students of Jose Urbina Lopez Elementary School in the Mexican border city of Matamoros find their new teacher rolling on the floor surrounded by overturned desks.

They’re not desks, he exclaims. They’re lifeboats.

So begins Christopher Zalla’s “Radical,” an inspirational based-on-a-true-story drama about an unconventional teacher named Sergio Juarez Correa (Eugenio Derbez). His day-one lesson is ultimately about buoyancy. But the metaphor isn’t hard to grasp. In Lopez’s classroom, education is a life raft.

“Radical,” which opens in theaters Friday, is a conventional but stirring entry in the crowded canon of uplifting educator tales like “Stand and Deliver,” “Lean on Me” and “The Class.”

“Radical,” though, isn’t set at an inner-city school in Los Angeles, New Jersey or Paris, like those films are. Matamoros, along the Rio Grande and across from Brownsville, Texas, is considered a lawless place, known for extreme violence and migrant encampments. “Radical” is also set in 2011, among the bloodiest years of Mexico’s drug war.

That makes for an especially unlikely backdrop for classroom revival. The school, itself, is known as “The School of Punishment.” For safety, its gates are locked during the school hours.

Sergio’s self-empowering method is to allow kids to follow their curiosity and find answers for themselves. They’re skeptical at first but soon are engaged and excited by their freedom to lead their own learning. More than once, Sergio says the students don’t even really need him.

There are plenty of familiar beats as the school year moves along. Sergio’s ways draw the ire of other teachers. Parents are distrustful, wondering if he’s giving kids facing a harsh future false hope. But while “Radical,” an audience winner at the Sundance Film Festival, is formulaic in its approach, it gets enough out of it likable cast to earn at least a passing grade.

Derbez, the Mexican actor and comedian, already made an impression in the classroom as the encouraging music teacher of the best picture-winning “CODA.” Here, he takes center stage, playing Sergio with a winning sincerity and full-bodied resistance to the rules.

Three of the students are brought into focus: Paloma (Jennifer Trejo), a math whiz with astronaut dreams who lives beside the landfill her father works at; Lupe (Mia Fernanda Solis), a budding philosopher whose pregnant mother expects her to help with childcare; and Nico (Danilo Guardiola), a plucky kid who’s being trained by a local dealer as a drug courier.

Their stories are never quite at the center of “Radical,” which sticks closest to its star teacher. But each young actor is natural, particularly Trejo. Her real-life character, Paloma Noyola Bueno, was the central figure in a Wired article that “Radical” is partially derived from.

But the best relationship captured in “Radical” is the one between Sergio and the school’s cautious, less energetic principal Chucho (a wonderful Daniel Haddad). He at first seems like an impediment to Sergio, warning him not to “kick the hornet’s nest.” But before long, he’s a co-conspirator, willing to — in a further experiment on buoyancy — cannonball into a cold tub. Together, Derbez and Haddad help make “Radical” float, too.

“Radical,” a TelevisaUnivision release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for some strong violent content, thematic material and strong language. In Spanish with subtitles. Running time: 127 minutes. Three stars out of four.

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Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP