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Already the subject of a documentary, the underdog story of a team of Arizona high-school inventors, all undocumented Mexican Americans, gets the narrative-feature treatment in Spare Parts. The immigration-themed messages of acceptance and encouragement are clearly spelled out, often in heavy-handed fashion, and an overriding blandness mutes the drama. But there’s also something apt in the straightforward telling of the against-the-odds adventure, which places a ragtag crew in the big leagues of an underwater robotics competition.
On the plus side, too, is the low-key work of the young central quartet of actors and the warm, unfussy performances by George Lopez (who also produced), Jamie Lee Curtis and Marisa Tomei as caring faculty members. The bilingual film, the latest release from the Latino-focused Lionsgate/Televisa partnership Pantelion, is middling family fare that should capitalize on a 400-screen targeted release.
Based on a 2004 Wired article by Joshua Davis, the story centers on Carl Hayden Community High School in Phoenix, where half the student population is undocumented. In the desert setting, four kids join forces on an unlikely project, building an underwater robot with the guidance of a substitute teacher. It’s easy to imagine glossier versions of a story that has all the markings of classic Hollywood feel-good material. Director Sean McNamara, whose previous experience in the realm of inspirational entertainment includes Soul Surfer, takes an unpretentious approach that isn’t especially inspired but helps to offset the forced aspects of Elisa Matsueda’s screenplay.
Lopez brings an Everyman quality to the role of Fredi Cameron, who has a PhD in engineering and a tidily hinted-at backstory of personal trauma. When he signs on as a teaching sub, fellow teacher Gwen (Tomei) pegs him as a “private sector guy,” but he soon shelves his job search, inspired by the teamwork and resourcefulness of his four robot-designing protégés.
Carlos PenaVega plays straight-arrow ROTC cadet Oscar, who sets his sights on the NASA-sponsored robotics contest after his lack of U.S. papers thwarts his plans to enlist in the Army. Joining him in the enterprise are computer and math geek Cristian (David del Rio), larcenous mechanical whiz Lorenzo (standout Jose Julian, of A Better Life) and gentle giant Luis (newcomer Oscar Gutierrez), who provides the muscle and, in his perceived slowness, gives the other characters a reason to explain scientific concepts to the audience.
As they prepare for the showdown in California, the group’s analog hacks of high-tech devices are engaging symbols of DIY spirit. With donations from local businesses and a budget of less than $800 — $18,000 less than one of their mightiest competitors’ expenditure — they use everything from tape measures to pool noodles to tampons, and conduct test runs in a motel pool. Offering comic relief and gung-ho support is their principal, played by Curtis with gusto and by far the most eccentric character in the movie.
Amid the camaraderie and sense of purpose, contrived complications pop up with clockwork predictability, however rooted they may be in such tough challenges as the constant fear of deportation. The home-life melodramas involve Oscar’s mother (Mexican star Alessandra Rosaldo) and girlfriend (played by PenaVega’s real-life spouse, Alexa PenaVega), and Lorenzo’s troubled cliché of a disapproving father (Esai Morales).
Mary Mazzio’s 2014 documentary about the Carl Hayden team, Underwater Dreams, explored the aftermath of the meet, when deportation became a reality for some of the Phoenix students. Spare Parts addresses those developments in a title-cards epilogue, and lards its dialogue with plenty of issue-related exposition.
Yet despite its clunkier elements, Matsueda’s screenplay is alert to details that ground the film in the day-to-day lives of young people who are American in every way but technically. In one telling scene, a date at McDonald’s (product placement aside) sparks childhood memories of crossing the border.
The production is polished but unshowy, with especially strong work on all fronts in the climactic competition sequence. Facing such heavy hitters as Cornell, MIT, Stanford and Duke, the kids from Carl Hayden make an impression, and the movie makes the results matter. Even more impressive: Current students of the high school built some of the robots used in the feature.
Production companies: Travieso Prods., Circle of Confusion
Cast: George Lopez, Jamie Lee Curtis, Marisa Tomei, Carlos PenaVega, David del Rio, Oscar Gutierrez, Jose Julian, Alexa PenaVega, Esai Morales, Alessandra Rosaldo
Director: Sean McNamara
Screenwriter: Elisa Matsueda
Producers: David Alpert, Rick Jacobs, Leslie Kolins Small, George Lopez, Benjamin Odell
Executive producers: Fernando Pérez Gavilan, Paul Presburger, James McNamara, Sean McNamara, Lawrence Mattis
Director of photography: Rich Wong
Production designer: Robb Wilson King
Costume designer: Durinda Wood
Editor: Maysie Hoy
Composer: Andrés Levin
Casting: J.C. Cantu, Jo Edna Boldin
Rated PG-13, 114 minutes
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