'Underwater Dreams': Film Review

Feel-good doc spreads its attention too evenly but builds to strong advocacy-minded finale.

A quartet of undocumented high schoolers best college engineering students in Mary Mazzio's doc.

An underdog educational tale with highly timely overtones, Mary Mazzio's Underwater Dreams introduces four undocumented Mexican immigrants who, while high-schoolers, won a robotics contest against teams from MIT and other colleges. Though cheerful and highly polished, the doc's storytelling is less effective than it might've been, a failing balanced by the likability of its lead characters and the scrappy spirit of their project. Feature-film producers may well show interest in the story, which is tailor-made for the inspirational-teacher genre; in nonfiction form, it will play well on small screens and in classrooms.

Phoenix's Carl Hayden High School, whose student body is overwhelmingly Latino, is described here as a place overshadowed by poverty, gang activity, and dim prospects for post-graduation life. At least that was the scene in 2004, when four kids who'd been toying with underwater robotics (two faculty advisors started the program on a whim) entered a college contest in Santa Barbara.

As one of them recalls, competing against college teams was less a matter of high ambition than of ego protection: Losing against well financed, well educated teams would be no big deal, whereas failing in a more appropriate venue might sting.

They didn't lose, of course, and Mazzio has something of a hard time injecting drama in a narrative whose outcome she teases from the outset. Rather than zero in on the four young men and dig into how they solved technical problems, she jumps out of the story at regular intervals to give too much time to background players — the MIT students, the Carl Hayden advisors — and to establish local social realities that, while necessary to the story, could be better integrated into it. Paul Gattuso's editing plays to viewers with ADHD, and Mazzio uses so many posed portrait shots the film sometimes looks like a corporate promo.

We get just enough detail about "Stinky," a robot named for the smell of PVC glue, to enjoy the story of the competition itself, but details about scoring and judging are underwhelming. We may think we've come to hear the story of this contest, but it's all over at the 40-minute mark.

The following section, detailing this victory's impact on the school, finds an exciting explosion of enthusiasm for science, but the doc hits its stride when this assertiveness points students in another direction — toward immigration reform and passage of the Dream Act. It's giving nothing away to say that our four initial subjects have been hobbled in post-graduation life by laws that, as inventor Dean Kamen says here, seem to be designed by terrorists who want to destroy America by keeping out as much talent and brainpower as possible. Underwater Dreams finds a direct link between the ragtag crew who built Stinky and some of the young activists now on the frontlines of the fight for sensible immigration policy.

Production company: 50 Eggs Films

Director-Screenwriter-Producers: Mary Mazzio

Executive producers: Jackie Bezos, Mike Bezos, Laurie Tisch, Jeb Bush, Jr., Michael Pena, Hope Pascucci, Mike Pascucci, Stephanie Hunt, Hunter Hunt, Sanjay Rawali, Christine Vachon, Sarah Lenti

Directors of photography: Joe Grasso, Richard Klug

Editor: Paul Gattuso

Music: Alex Lasarenko

No rating, 86 minutes

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