April 18, 1988 12:00 PM

This movie is based on a true story about 18 high school students passing a 1982 math test. Not exactly the stuff of high drama by itself. But when the test is an advanced placement calculus exam and the East Los Angeles school the kids come from is overrun with gangs and drugs, it makes for an against-the-odds tale that has some affecting moments. Don’t expect a remake of To Sir with Love or Up the Down Staircase. Co-writer-director Ramon Menendez, whose top previous credit was as first assistant director on Oliver Stone’s Salvador, takes a low-key approach. Too low-key. The film generates no sense of the passion that poor kids from the barrio must have acquired to want to take calculus classes in the summer, for instance. The movie jumps around a bit, too, until there’s some narrative focus—the students are accused of cheating—to pull it together. While Lou Diamond (La Bamba) Phillips shows a lot of poise and presence as a gang member, Andy (The Untouchables) Garcia’s role as an unsympathetic test-board investigator is painfully one-dimensional. But whatever the film’s shortcomings, it maintains a feeling of depth and integrity, thanks largely to Edward James Olmos, Lt. Castillo on Miami Vice. As Jaime Escalante, the teacher who inspired the unlikely math prodigies, Olmos provides plenty to stand up and cheer about even when the film is not delivering much else in the way of substance. (PG)

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