Unlike, say, spelling bees, as seen in the competition doc Spellbound, chess does not easily lend itself to cinematic representation. Chess movies are rare and tend to gloss over the meat of the sport: that is to say, the part where competitors sit there and think, think, think, only periodically making a move. Searching for Bobby Fischer wisely edited bouts down to the euphonious sound of pieces being smacked enthusiastically on boards; Fresh focused most of its energy on its young prodigy’s connection to the local drug trade. In the doc Brooklyn Castle, matches between its teenage subjects can last upward of three hours. The documentarians’ solution? Turn away from chess sessions and dwell on the sidelines.
Brooklyn Castle, then, adopts a tried-and-true populist documentary structure: Pick a few interesting case studies, make us care about them, then hope something interesting/happy happens.The focus is Brooklyn’s I.S. 38, which holds more national chess titles than any junior high school in the country. Among its stars is Rochelle, who, at 13, has a higher chess score than even Albert Einstein. The game is her ticket to a better life, as she is part of the 65 percent of her school that comes from low-income families. Also worth your care is Alexis, who wants to use his future fortunes on his immigrant family; Pobo, who runs for class president under the pseudonym “Pobama,” and Patrick, a seventh grader using chess to tame his severe ADHD.
Brooklyn Castle goes 50-50 with touching on various ideas and keeping things entertaining/moving, all while taking chess away from its elite image and showing how it can be used to better economic/social status and even mental disorders. It’s actually more interesting when focusing on the latter than the former: The school’s excitable chess teacher explains that chess is good for anyone because where a book can be daunting, chess taps into and amplifies natural reasoning skills. The doc’s storyline is complicated by New York’s budget crisis, which puts “superfluous” school programs like chess in jeopardy. But as with its other ideas, the reporting is only slightly better than skin deep, though you don’t need to get too far into economics-talk to defend such programs’ obvious contributions to mankind’s future.