Up against the border between the United States and Mexico is the town of Brownsville, Texas, where the residents get much of their past and contemporary culture from a mixture of the two nations. Jose, the unlikely protagonist of Endgame is an elementary school student who is struggling to find his way in a world where he feels disconnected, unappreciated, and unwanted. When he’s not getting into trouble at school, being lectured by the most insufferable movie Principal in history, or arguing with his mother, Jose spends time with his grandmother playing chess.
Endgame does its best to mimic many of the feel good chess movies that have come before it. There are times it tries to channel Searching for Bobby Fischer with a mix of Knights of the South Bronx. Although it certainly doesn’t come close to the beauty of Searching, there are moments that make Endgame a worthy family movie.
Given the story’s setting, the producers do take time to address some of the contemporary political discussions surrounding illegal immigration in the United States and the consequences that come with it for the families involved. Without giving too much away, there is a subplot involving one of the chess team members who’s parents are illegal immigrants. The way in which the film deals with this subplot is very interesting because it has a resolution, but not in the way that one would expect for a film that seems to be geared toward a family friendly audience.
As the world around him seems to crumble, Jose finds himself immersed deeper into the world of scholastic chess. He’s encouraged by the eccentric tutorage of his chess coach, Mr. Alvaredo, who is based on the real life Brownsville chess coach J.J. Guajardo. Mr. Guajardo was a teacher at Brownsville (Russell) Elementary School in the 1980s when he took a group of kids given detention for allegedly destroying a school record collection and taught them to play chess. Since then, Brownsville has been overrun by curious media and chess fanatics curious about its incredibly strong scholastic teams.
Through his effort to win on the board, Jose faces a myriad of challenges that mirror the movement of his pieces. Friends come and go just as though they were nothing more than pieces on the board. There is deep symbolism in chess, which requires little effort from any competent producer or director to bring out in a film. Endgame does a good job of juxtaposing the challenges of daily life and the struggles around us with the endless struggle to checkmate our opponent’s King.
How does Endgame stack up against the increasingly crowded field of feel good chess movies and feel good sports movies in general? Well, for me, it’s a mixed bag. There are some interesting characters, for sure. The Principal is one of the scummiest people I’ve ever seen in a film. Very rarely has a character created a sense of physical rage inside me, but the school’s smug Principal certainly did the job. My main issue with this movie was the character of Jose. It’s obvious that the producers wanted to create a character who was realistic and relatable, but he’s often an obnoxious and annoying boy who’s eventual victories are sometimes overshadowed by his overall attitude and demeanor.
Endgame is not a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination. It has its fun moments and it has some legitimate tear-jerking moments. You can’t go wrong with giving it a try if you’re looking for a lightweight chess film or something for the family to sit down and enjoy over a bowl of popcorn one evening.