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Sundance 2023: Radical, The Longest Goodbye

One of the first narrative features to premiere at Sundance this year brought back some alumnus with major wins from the festival’s past. Director Christopher Zalla, who previously won the Grand Jury Prize for “Padre Nuestro” back in 2007, returns with a Premieres section film starring and produced by Eugenio Derbez, who was a key part of the ensemble that turned 2021’s “CODA” into a fest crowdpleaser and eventually a historical Oscar winner. Their latest puts festival’s non-competition films off to a gentle start—“Radical” is almost impressively formulaic in how it tells a true story about a teacher with unorthodox ways of getting his low-scoring sixth graders from an underserved school in Mexico to care about education. 

Over the last few years, Derbez has made his screen presence one of the easiest to root for compared to approximately all actors working in the world, especially when he takes on whimsical paternal roles such as these—in the way that some folk always seem like they should be the bad guy, Derbez has become a champion for underdogs. In this role, Derbez is as warming as ever while also fashioning a real-life person to be perfectly imperfect, which becomes part of its open contrivances. 

In contrast to his strict music teacher in “CODA,” his Sergio here is the type of magical mind who leads with an air of theatricality in his interactions with skeptical children and adults. He offers his silent students a perfect score if they can speak up and give a wrong answer to a question, and when one says they want to learn about boats, he takes them to the school's barren library to look for answers. He doesn’t teach them multiplication tables. This is just the beginning of Sergio's celebrated pedagogical spark, as he whips up curiosities and encourages them to learn whatever they want to. He teaches them to think for themselves. 

Three students from Sergio’s class are highlighted, with the story focusing on each arc, sometimes to the detriment of its pacing. Lupe is a girl who doesn’t know what philosophy is by name, but she has the inner flame of one; Nico is the class clown and also dangerously close to being sucked into gang life; and Paloma is a brilliant shooting star who lives with her father in poverty, helping him collect scraps that can be sold for money. The young performances that fill these characters are sweet, as is their chemistry opposite Derbez.

Written by Zalla and based on a Wired article by Joshua Davis, “Radical” feels too often like its drama has been copied from a tearjerking textbook; it’s nearly flagrant about having so many predictable beats in what happens to the rule-breaking teacher who will do anything for his students. Zalla’s touch as a director is often missing as well, though it is noted how much his dramatic tone wants to emphasize the outside school surroundings as being dangerous for these kids, creating a heavy atmosphere that makes clear what’s at stake. 

“Radical” saves its most challenging material for the philosophies within, like looking at education as a process that needs resuscitation and inspiration, not the discipline and strict schedule that was put into place before Sergio arrived. And in the scheme of all the movies that “Radical” makes you think of, Zalla cleverly angles it as Sergio vs. the expectations of standardized tests and all the stuffy ideals they come with. 

There’s no inherent problem with aiming to be a crowd-pleaser, but that focus becomes more frustrating with "Radical" than it should. Zalla’s film occupies that strange place in which something inspired by a true story—and this one has an amazing, factual epilogue—is softened and broadened so much that even the heartwarming real stuff feels too good to be true. 

Within the next ten years, NASA plans to put people on a ship that will hopefully reach Mars. The big predicament, tackled by “The Longest Goodbye,” doesn’t concern whether the technology can work but the human factor. Such a journey will be an immense feat of “prolonged isolation,” with crew members spending months with each other in tight quarters and years away from their families. It is not how human beings have been wired, and many different minds are on the cutting edge of figuring out a solution. 

Ido Mizrahy's “The Longest Goodbye,” a curious but overly dry documentary that premiered yesterday in the festival's World Cinema Documentary section, spins in circles when collecting different options provided by scientists. Ideas like communicating with loved ones in virtual reality, talking to a floating robot head named CIMON, and hibernation are profiled here like windows into the future, initially furnished by dreams from science fiction. These possibilities are juggled with some curiosity, but their manner of being shared here, a la rotating presentations at a conference, gives it little narrative momentum, which is jarring compared to the high stakes of space exploration. 

Giving the astronaut a sense of family closeness is an essential part of the equation, and that is focused more acutely with the previous space work of Cady Johnson, who went into orbit when her son was in fourth grade and communicated with him and his father via a desktop computer. Like fragments from a scripted movie that creates drama from a computer screen, we see how one might try to parent from above with a sometimes shaky connection while in the International Space Station. In one moment, she tries to discipline her moody child (affected by the distance and situation), and it is uniquely moving while also illustrative of the large problem on NASA’s hands. 

In spite of its flaws, this documentary has a rare human lens into an astronaut's mental work, including candid footage of people up on the ISS wrestling with emotions that don't make headlines. We rarely get such a sense of the emotional toll of such an experience. “The Longest Goodbye” is at least strong enough to make one consider how much viewers on the ground can take for granted the sacrifices that a select few make in the name of exploration. 

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is the Senior Editor at RogerEbert.com and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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