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Entries in Endgame [2015] (1)


Endgame (2015)

Well Played

In movies, chess is a shorthand for portraying characters as deep thinkers or cunning strategists. I never learned the game. I never went searching for Bobby Fischer. But I knew that when Professor X and Magneto stared at each other from across their ornate glass board, something terrible was brewing. Carmen Marron's Endgame is the first film I've seen where chess transcends affectation and becomes the driving narrative force, as essential to the drama as basketball is to Hoosiers or baseball is to Bull Durham.

The movie's beats may be very familiar to the parents of its target audience. Part Stand By Me, part Stand and Deliver, part every-sports-movie-ever-made, Endgame centers on a real-life Texas middle school student named Jose (Rico Rodriguez) who gets out of detention by joining an idealistic teacher's new chess club. Jose barely registers at home, since older brother/burgeoning soccer star Miguel (Xavier Gonzalez) gets all the affection from overworked single mom, Karla (Justina Machado).

Endgame quickly establishes two main plots that converge in the climax's Big Championship Game. Tragedy drives a larger wedge between Jose and his mother, driving him closer to his grandmother (Ivonne Coll), who lives next door and continues a tradition of chess instruction that began with his dearly departed grandfather. Meanwhile, the club's sponsor, Mr. Alvarado (Efren Ramirez), struggles to keep his students motivated and teach them the value of sportsmanship, while scrounging up trip funding for their increasingly distant competitions. On top of all this, poverty and the threat of deportation are ever-present spectres in the film, and chess proves to be the perfect vehicle for Endgame's characters to drive through their unfortunate personal circumstances.

My lack of familiarity with the game made parts of the movie confusing. Marron and co-writer Hector Salinas don't explain what chess is, or even its basic rules. Characters furiously swipe pieces and bang the clock in scenes that are edited as dramatically as football plays. But discerning queens, kings, rooks, and pawns in quick-cut close-ups is tricky; discerning the significance of their placement is almost impossible--unless, I imagine, if one has an intimate understanding of the board. In an early scene, Jose impresses his grandma with a sweet move. I know it's a sweet move because Rico smiles proudly just before a semi-comedic cut. But if you put a gun to my head and told me to explain why he won, my last word would be, "Uh..."

For me, Endgame was like a foreign-language movie without subtitles. And I loved it. Yes, it was mildly frustrating at times, but the filmmakers made me care enough about chess to be curious. Someday, I'd like to learn the game and then revisit Endgame to find out why its victories are so uplifting and its defeats so crushing. I was invested in these characters. I wanted them to succeed, both in a game I don't understand, and in life.*

The movie's performances are wonderful across the board. I've watched TV's Modern Family since the beginning, and was alwas iffy on Rico Rodriguez as an actor. He's stiff on that show, in a way that comes across as more than just his awkward character's uptight manner. Rodriguez reveals a natural side here that caught me off guard. The same goes for Machado and Coll, whose devastating mother/daughter argument mid-film adds new dimension to their characters, and to a story we've seen too many times.

Props, also, to Jon Gries, who plays a surprisingly layered school principal. He and Efren Ramirez give their all to these roles, making the novelty of their having appeared together in Napoleon Dynamite a footnote instead of one of the film's defining traits.

As I've written elsewhere, my frustration with BOATS* movies is Hollywood's propensity for squeezing people's unique life stories into a trite three-act structure, and conforming supposedly real human beings to archetypes from a dozen other sausage-factory narratives. There's some of that in Endgame, along with some moments of "family movie" goofiness that I could have done without. But Marron and Salinas leave one key bit of business unresolved--going so far as to include the obligatory tease that a heartwarming moment is just around the corner. The issue remains open at the end credits, an emotionally satisfying reminder that life is an ongoing and unpredictable game that's always three moves ahead.

*Which I also don't understand.

**Based on a True Story.