Eugenio Derbez had long been intrigued by the story of a 12-year-old girl from a Mexican border town who was featured on a 2013 Wired magazine cover as “The Next Steve Jobs.”
“I was still living in Mexico back then. And I remember that I was having dinner in my house and watching the news. And all of a sudden I saw Paloma’s story — how did she become No. 1 nationwide?” Derbez said in a video interview, referring to Paloma Noyola Bueno, who came from a poor community but got the top math score on Mexico's national standardized test.
Derbez's interest led him to head up the creation of the movie "Radical," which will play in U.S. movie theaters on Nov. 3.
Derbez plays Sergio Juárez Correa, the elementary school teacher who used an experimental teaching method to mentor Paloma and her classmates — with spectacular results.
In 2012, the students at José Urbina López Elementary School in Matamoros, Mexico, across the border from Brownsville, Texas, got the highest scores on the national standardized test, beating everyone else at their grade level in Mexico — including students from elite schools.
Paloma's school was next to a garbage dump, and people reportedly called it “a place of punishment,” Wired reported, with limited electricity, internet and computers. Children sometimes didn't have enough to eat.
“Radical” is based on the way Juárez Correa applied an experimental teaching method that he saw online from Sugata Mitra — an Indian professor who won a $1 million TED prize in 2013. Mitra developed a teaching method that used computers to inspire children to learn on their own and with groups of students, instead of conventional teacher-led classes.
In the movie, Derbez explains to his students on the first day of school that their own potential will make them the best students in the world, as Juárez Correa told his students, according to the Wired article.
Derbez said that unlike idealistic teachers who establish themselves authoritatively at the front of the class, his character makes his mark on students as a peer or a friend.
"He doesn’t want to show off. He wants to be hidden in the back. He doesn’t want to lead," Derbez said. "There’s a scene in the movie where he takes out of the classroom the desk because he doesn’t want to be the authority figure in the classroom."
Fans in the U.S. will remember Derbez from another teaching role, in the 2022 Oscar-winning movie "CODA." His character as a teacher in “Radical” may connect with viewers emotionally like Robin Williams did in “Dead Poets Society,” Edward James Olmos in “Stand and Deliver” or Sidney Poitier in “To Sir, with Love.”
Access to economic and educational resources is correlated with success on standardized tests, with U.S. recent data showing a wide gap between the haves and have-nots: The New York Times reported that students from families in the top 20% of earners were seven times more likely than those in the bottom 20% to score at least 1300 on the SAT, which could open the door to the top colleges nationwide.
That the students in Matamoros defied the lack of advantages is what makes the real-life story so compelling — and inspiring.
Derbez said the movie features characters like Lupita (Mia Fernanda Solis) and Nico (Danilo Guardiola) who are based on composites of real student experiences from Juárez Correa’s classroom.
But the character of Paloma (Jennifer Trejo) is based on the real-life story of the girl who achieved Mexico's highest math score — and who put her school and her teacher on the map.
Paloma grew up as the youngest of eight, with her father making ends meet by digging up pieces of aluminum, glass and plastic from the garbage dump to sell for scrap, according to Wired.
Now, Derbez said, she's studying law.
Derbez hopes taking Paloma's life story to the big screen will deliver a compelling message to moviegoers everywhere: “Try even if you fail, but try.”
“We didn’t want to tell a Hollywood story with a happy ending,” he said. Still, they aimed for viewers “to see how you can change the world with so little," as Paloma's teacher did.