There have been many movies about unconventional teachers inspiring impoverished, “hopeless” students. It’s practically a genre unto itself. Dangerous Minds, Freedom Writers, Stand and Deliver - all of them follow the same formula and arrive at the same uplifting climax. Radical follows the formula too. The difference is that director Christopher Zalla executes it at an incredibly high level. So high, in fact, that you completely forget how formulaic the story is and just enjoy its heartwarming nature.

Sergio Juarez (Eugenio Derbez) has intentionally sought out a job at Jose Urbina Lopez Elementary. The school is in a Mexican town overflowing with poverty, violence, and drugs. Students there have the worst academic scores in the entire country. Principal Chucho (Daniel Haddad) is resigned to that fate, pushing the kids through the system without much concern for actual education. On his first day, Sergio tosses decorum out the window, gaining his pupils’ attention by insisting that he doesn’t intend to follow a curriculum. In fact, they’re free to learn whatever they choose.

His approach, which the film establishes he’s making up as he goes along, has an effect. The students become curious, first about how boats manage to stay afloat, then by all kinds of additional things. Other teachers resent his success, but Chucho humors the new teacher. One of the students most impacted by Sergio is Paloma (Jennifer Trejo), a girl with above-average intelligence and a father who refuses to believe she can go anywhere in life. A second student has to decide whether to continue getting groomed for the drug trade or devote himself to learning.

Radical is based on actual events. Even if they’re dramatized according to a formula, the movie works specifically because it plays very real. Sergio isn’t a master teacher, he’s a guy desperately struggling to get through to children primed to not care about learning. The students themselves aren’t cutesy, wisecracking caricatures. They face genuine problems that kids from poor parts of the world routinely confront. Zalla’s screenplay is intelligent and detailed, allowing us to see both Sergio’s sensitivity to their needs and how his class evolves from it. Nothing here feels manipulative.

Derbez is simply extraordinary in the lead role. Portraying Sergio as a guy who’s as insecure as he is dedicated, the actor is completely credible. This man has no clue if he can reach his students, but he’s determined to not give up on them like everybody else has. There’s warmth to the performance that elevates it far above the generic “savior teacher” cliché. With his comedic background, Derbez is able to sell his character’s eccentric style while allowing a seriousness of purpose to shine through.

Radical ends with the requisite state achievement test. We know how it’s going to work out before the first person picks up their pencil. Nevertheless, the sense of triumph is earned. The story, like Sergio, recognizes that thinking outside the box is a vital skill – one capable of taking young minds to places they didn’t think they could go. That’s a powerful sentiment in a beautiful, touching film.

out of four

Radical is rated PG-13 for strong violent content, thematic material, and strong language. The running time is 2 hours and 5 minutes.