“A person that’s first coming into my school, they would know me pretty clearly, because I’m the best player,” says Rochelle. She’s an eight grader at Intermediate School 318 in Brooklyn, and she plays chess. “But I don’t like talking about it,” she adds, “Because it makes me seem like a nerd.” Rochelle is one of several students profiled in Brooklyn Castle, members of I.S. 318’s renowned chess team. Coached by assistant principal John Gavin and the remarkable chess teacher Elizabeth Vicary, the players grant director Katie Dellamaggiore remarkable access to their daily lives over a year of competitions.
The first film in Stranger Than Fiction’s Fall Season, the film screens on 27 September, followed by a Q&A with Dellamaggiore. At once revealing and nuanced, it makes clear the children’s determination and vulnerabilities, their youth and sometimes startling maturity. Twelve-year-old Pobo, the team captain, encourages his teammates whether they win or lose (even as he’s also running for president at school). New member Justus Williams, not even 11 years old when he decides on 318, says he was impressed by the school’s reputation for producing “great players.” And 11-year-old Patrick, who’s dealing with ADHD, finds himself alternately elated and frustrated by his performances at tournaments. “Whenever people say that there’s a lesson to be learned whenever you lose,” he sighs following one loss, “Personally, right now, I think it’s just a load of bullshit, because you’re already trying as hard as you can, basically.”
As the film shows — through interviews with players, parents, and coaches, through graphs and charts, classroom and tournament montages — the students feel pressures and also look forward to high school. (318 is a Title I school, which means students come from backgrounds where the poverty levels range from 60 to 70%.) Chess helps them focus, find a sense of community, and imagine a future that takes them beyond their current lives, in cramped apartments and at-risk neighborhoods. As the film offers glimpses of the kids’ inner lives and external experiences, it helps you see how expansive both can be.