Eugenio Derbez Shines as Loving, Innovative Teacher in Spanish-Language “Radical”

Man with graying hair and short beard smiles and laughs as he his photographed
Eurgenio Derbez appeared at the opening-night screening of "Radical" at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Photo by Jutharat Pinyodoonyachet

Eurgenio Derbez appeared at the opening-night screening of “Radical” at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
Photo by Jutharat Pinyodoonyachet

By Vanessa Zimmer

Maybe turning a classroom into a playground isn’t such a bad idea.

That’s the sort of teaching technique proposed in Radical — a Spanish-language film based on a true story — which premiered Thursday, January 19, opening night of the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. 

On the first day of school, Sergio Juárez Correa (Eugenio Derbez), the new sixth grade teacher at José Urbina López Elementary School in Matamoros, Mexico, turns all the desks upside down and says to arriving students that the tables are boats on a rocking sea. His aim: Involve the kids. Have fun. Transform listless desk-sitters into active, eager participants.

Sergio believes every student has potential, and that the best teaching conceivably involves letting the kids decide what they want to learn. He certainly doesn’t want to teach to a test — in this case, the ENLACE looming before his class, which his colleagues and superiors are obsessed with.

But the educational system is just part of what he’s up against in trying to engage his students. There’s also the reality of the students: Paloma is a super-smart girl whose ailing father sorts through trash to eke out a living; Nico is a nice boy headed for life as a gang member; and Lupe is a 12-year-old taking care of her siblings, getting them and herself to school on time, and basically acting as the mother in her household.

Not to mention the frequent not-so-distant sound of gunshots outside the classroom, from the surrounding village.

Fresh off an inspiring, energetic turn as the music teacher in Oscar– and Festival–winning CODA (2021), Derbez inhabits Sergio with warmth and humor — and a little bit of sadness. 

The audience at the opening-night premiere loved him as much as his character’s students do. They stood up, applauded, and hooted when Derbez’s name came up on the end credits. And they continued when Derbez and the young actors who played Paloma (Jennifer Trejo) and Lupe (Mia Fernanda Solis), and the rest of the crew came onstage for a Q&A after the film. 

There was barely a dry eye on the stage. Both girls broke into tears as they expressed through a translator that the film was the best experience of their lives. “Everything is possible,” said Trejo. “We just need someone to tell us we can do it.”

Added Solis: “I really love the story. It resonated with me in a very special way. I hope my performance showed that.”

Derbez, who hugged and comforted the girls, said he was looking for something different from his comedic roles, something that was meaningful and that would make people feel. Playing Sergio, he thought he could make a difference. “I hope this is going to make a lot of teachers think.”

Writer-director Christopher Zalla (2007 Sundance Grand Jury Prize–winner, Padre Nuestro) also got choked up at the response of the crowd. The film was inspired by the real-life Sergio, a “raw, vulnerable, exhilarating” man, Zalla said, who decided to try an entirely new teaching method and placed his faith in the children.

Comparisons to Stand and Deliver (called Walking on Water at the 1988 Sundance Film Festival) are inevitable, but — and no disrespect to Stand and Deliver — unnecessary. Sergio and his kids have their own unique, compelling, and uplifting story to tell.

Mia Fernanda Solis, Jennifer Treo, and Christopher Zalla answered questions after the screening of "Radical" on opening night.