This film is about Jaime Escalante (portrayed masterfully by Edward James Olmos) and his math class that he had in 1982 (based on a true story). Escalante was a Bolivian living in America that went to East L.A.'s Garfield High School to teach computer science. It turned out that the school had no funding for computers, so they redirected him to teach math instead. His class of eighteen Latin-American students, convinced they would never amount to much, were still struggling with the concept of fractions. They're troublemakers and gangmembers. One of the most complicated and difficult students, Angel (Lou Diamond Phillips), goes home every night to end up drinking, smoking, and throwing bricks through shop windows.
Escalante learns to work with these students, motivating them to learn. Ganas, or desire, are required from everybody. "With ganas you can do anything you want," says Escalante. "And if you don't have ganas, I'll give you some. I'm an expert." Deciding he needs a challenge, he decides that in two years he'll teach the students calculus and have them pass the A.P. (Advanced Placement) Calculus exam. What happens next is truly emotional and inspirational. I won't reveal the ending, as it's for you to see.
While most recent films about teaching have focused upon the lack of control that teachers execute in the classroom (particularly in underprivileged neighborhoods), this film is about a teacher who is in absolute command of his students. Additionally, rather than solely focus upon the teacher's efforts to transform these kids' lives, the movie truly focuses upon the students themselves and their ambitions and battles with issues of race and discrimination. Watch this film for a refreshing look on the genre.
This movie, based on the true story of math teacher Jaime Escalante and his Garfield High students, shows us how one man's uncompromising work ethic can inspire others to overcome the most difficult adversities. Edward James Olmos is perfect as Escalante, a man who does not settle for mediocrity and sets out to instill that same philosophy in his students. No easy task, because his class is composed entirely of inner-city Latinos who have been conditioned by their circumstances to believe that they will never amount to much. Typifying this mindset is Angel (Lou Diamond Phillips, in a brilliant performance), a troublemaker who spends his nights boozing and joyriding with wild abandon.
But with trademark Latino fire, Escalante pushes, and pushes, and then pushes some more. He requires his students to come to school early and leave late. He takes away their weekends, and even their summer vacation. And by the time he's done, they're ready to take the Advanced Placement Calculus test.
Rarely do we see a film based on actual events that inspires us so profoundly. It's just a shame that it's not as well-known as it should be. (Count the number of reviews submitted here.)
Just an aside: Olmos's name is not often mentioned when the topic of conversation is Hollywood's greatest actors. But did you know he got a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his performance in this film? The eventual winner: Dustin Hoffman.