Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Rico Ramirez in Endgame
"Rico Ramirez keeps the audience interested even when Jose is at his least sympathetic, and knows how to turn on the harm without ever being sugary. He's definitely one to watch."

Ultimately, there are only so many ways to play a successful game of chess. Only so many openings, only so many way to hold the centre ground, and only three possible conclusions. What marks out the most celebrated players is not simply the efficiency but the style with which they go through the motions. Endgame, though it never deviates from the rules, deserves to celebrated for its style, and still more so for its warmth, wit and strong performances.

The finest of these comes from young Rico Rodriguez as Jose, a lonely boy who lives in the shadow of his brother's footballing brilliance. The difference in the way their mother treat the two boys is startling (though it is explained later on), and the result is that Jose spends a lot of time with his Abuelita, who lives nearby. She teaches him chess and feeds him at every opportunity, though he doesn't look as if he needs it. His chess playing comes to the attention of dedicated schoolteacher Mr Alvarado (Efren Ramirez), and when tragedy strikes the family, making life even harder, it's chess that Jose must turn to to get his life back on track.

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Brownsville is one of the mos deprived areas in Texas; the achievements of its school chess teams have become legendary, turning everyone's expectations upside down, and Marron's film uses its dramatic narrative to explore the way this happened. Although the story is focused firmly on Jose, through it we see a lot of the challenging social issues surrounding him. This is a place where life is so tough that it almost makes sense to invest in just one child, to share scant food unevenly so that at least somebody has a chance of making it. It's a place where migrant families who have been part of the community for years are suddenly snatched away in police raids. In his frustration, Jose courts trouble, smashing things, running from his mother and hiding in bins. It's easy to see where his life could be going if nobody steps in to help; it's easy to see what motivats Mr Alvardo, and how prizes for the school's trophy cabinet are not a key part of it.

Stories like this easily become sentimental, but Endgame never ladles it on. The naturalness of the acting and the sheer brutality of some elements, which offer no emotional resolution, keeps things balanced. Importantly, Marron and co-scriptwriter Salinas are under no illusions about how children interact with each other. There's no violent bullying here but the simple nastiness of some of the youngsters is striking, especially as the pressure mounts in chess competitions where no young prodigy is emotionally equipped for losing. The relationships between the children are well drawn and feel real, shaped by childhood concerns that don't always correspond to the neuroses of adults.

Jose himself is not always the most likeable kid, but Marron invites us to look beyond that and to see potential that's about more than being good at a game. Rico Ramirez keeps the audience interested even when Jose is at his least sympathetic, and knows how to turn on the harm without ever being sugary. He's definitely one to watch. Endgame is a delightful little film that will appeal to adults and young people alike. It has some dark things to say but they're leavened by humour and by a constant optimism about human potential.

Reviewed on: 24 Sep 2015
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Endgame packshot
A troubled boy learns to believe in himself through playing chess.

Director: Carmen Marron

Writer: Carmen Marron, Hector Salinas

Starring: Rico Rodriguez, Justina Machado, Efren Ramirez, Ivonne Coll, Alina Herrera, Xavier Gonzalez, Cassie Brennan

Year: 2015

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: US


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