I’m a huge documentary fan. In fact I even enjoy documentaries set in specific, upper crust, New York City schools (Frontrunners). So I was pretty excited to finally watch Brooklyn Castle, a documentary about the winningest junior high chess team in America, when it finally showed up on Netflix streaming.
The film follows students and staff at New York’s IS 318 as they try to navigate high pressure chess matches and heavy budget cuts to retain their reputation as the best chess playing school in the country.
At its core the movie takes a close look at several of the players as they pontificate on their short and long term goals, try to improve their chess ranking, use chess as a balm for ADD and run for class president. These stories are often interesting and heartwarming. However, there’s simply too many of them. This is a film that could have benefited form a more limited scope. It jumps from kid to kid, event to event at seemingly random intervals. You never really feel like the stakes are raised even when they’re playing at the National chess championships. What should be the super dramatic keystone event instead is shot like all the other match-ups and not really “sold” to the viewer. And, while all the students surely have interesting stories to tell, it is very hard to get invested when the movie drops their story, goes onto 2 other stories, then picks the original story back up 15 minutes later.
This issue is best reflected in Rochelle Ballantyne’s segments. She is ostensibly trying to become the first female African-American chess master after graduating from IS 318. This is a very trying process for a teenager attending one of New York’s pressure packed magnet high schools and the movie has her tell you all about the doubts she has - in fact it seems to indicate that she no longer has the heart for chess competitions. Then, it drops her story and, when it picks it back up, she has apparently done a complete 180 because she’s entered the girl’s chess championships totally devoted to victory. What happened to make her so dedicated to her craft again? I don’t know, and the movie really doesn’t give much of a clue leaving the reader to guess at her mental maneuvering.
Overall watching this documentary is probably akin to watching one of the giant chess meets depicted in the film. There’s a ton of different battles going on making it very hard to focus on the minutiae and motivation of each match - you know - the interesting stuff. Eventually someone wins and you feel good for them because, well, they’re a kid, but you simply don’t fell particularly invested or impressed because so much of their personal struggle to the top is unknown to you.
-Film Pigeon Andrew