Edward James Olmos, left, talks with Jaime Escalante during the filming… (Associated Press )
You could remain, mesmerized, in Jaime Escalante's high-school math class forever, the way you remain under the spell of Escalante himself as "Stand and Deliver" unfolds (opening Friday at selected theaters). Talent like his is a miracle, and about as predictable as one. You can find it in a master of the shell game or a preacher of the Gospel, in the conductor of a symphony orchestra--or a balding, overweight mathematics teacher.
It's the power to sway a group to your will, to have them hang on your every whisper, to do what you want them to do, learn what you want them to learn. If we were very lucky, we may once have had a teacher like this somewhere along the way. The students of East Los Angeles' Garfield High have Jaime Escalante, and "Stand and Deliver" has Edward James Olmos, and it seems a fair enough trade.
Olmos' self-effacing magnetism is at the center of a rousing true story of a man able to inspire a lethargic group of almost-dropouts at a school barely able to keep its accreditation--to galvanize them, give them pride in themselves and show them the road to earning it.
"Stand and Deliver" is not a perfect film--to be that, it would need deeper texture to the writing and more complexity to the characters--but you may not even notice. (Ramon Menendez and Tom Musca are the co-writers. Menendez is also the director, and Musca the producer. And it is still early in both their careers.) It carries the thrill of watching a closed mind unclench, of watching the diabolical intensity of the man who makes it open and blossom.
First days in Garfield High's war zone atmosphere in 1982 are about as grim as a tour of the demilitarized zone. Escalante's fellow math department members in this primarily Latino school are shop and gym teachers, hired mostly to keep law and order in remedial math classes. It's the self-deprecating side of Escalante that saves him those first few days--none of the kids can say anything funnier about this pot-bellied pop, his few strands of hair pasted across his balding forehead, than he does himself. It's a start.
Soon he's working on them, encouraging them to leave class--"Taco Bell always needs more fry cooks"--or, if they stay, to agree to unheard-of demands: a contract to stay in class, extra hours at both ends of the school day, special classes Saturdays and holidays, 30 hours of homework. Olmos makes this the fun part. Dropping his voice, rather than raising it, taunting, mocking, working the class like a wheedling stand-up comedian, he bullies them up along the math ladder, finally challenging them with calculus.
"Calculus doesn't need to be made easy--it already is." That's Escalante's rallying cry, and he goes to work to make his students believe it. Among them are gang member Angel ( Lou Diamond Phillips), who manages to stagger to school after an all-nighter with his gang; Ana (Vanessa Marquez), whose father wants her talents in his taqueria , and Claudia (Karla Montana), who has been too attractive for her own good for too long.
Soon, more than two years after he has welded them into a thinking, working unit, Escalante's kids gear themselves up for a test that only 2% of students in America consider, the Advanced Placement calculus test.
You may just guess part of the film's outcome; this is, after all, the theatrical release of a film made for public television's "American Playhouse," and the words heard there are seldom discouraging. It's the true incidents after the test that are the movie's stunners. But they're crucial to the film's tough, inspiring theme: that ganas --desire, the only quality Escalante demands of all his kids--is not quite enough. You must go beyond that to a real test of character.
As the film makers demonstrate, pride is contagious. It has infected Garfield High, where Escalante still holds his standards high and dares kids to follow. "Stand and Deliver" itself, with its message of the soaring rewards of learning, aims high and delivers perhaps a B+. But it's already a better, less cliched film than "La Bamba," with considerably more on its mind, and its strengths may pave the way for more complex, more demanding stories of the Latino experience for all audiences.
'STAND AND DELIVER'
A Warner Bros. presentation of An American Playhouse Theatrical film. A Menendez/Musca & Olmos production. Executive producer Lindsay Law. Producer Tom Musca. Director Ramon Menendez. Screenplay Menendez, Musca. Music Craig Safan. Editor Nancy Richardson. Camera Tom Richmond. Associate producer Iya LaBunka. Art director Milo. Costumes Kathryn Morrison. Sound Steve Halbert. With Edward James Olmos, Lou Diamond Phillips, Rosana De Soto, Andy Garcia, Vanessa Marquez, Karla Montana, Daniel Villarreal.
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.
MPAA-rated: PG (parental guidance suggested.)