Here’s hoping the movie Spare Parts doesn’t get swept out to sea in the American Sniper tsunami. Spare Parts is based on a true story about four undocumented immigrants from Mexico, students at Carl Hayden High School in Phoenix, who put together an underwater robot that competed in the college division at a national robotics competition in 2004. They employed ingenuity, perseverance, used car parts, and a production budget of less than $800 (versus their competition’s five-figured expenditures) to build their robot.
The movie has many of the standard plot twists and devices of the “underdog” genre—Hoosiers meets Stand and Deliver. Even thinking this team, in the Arizona desert, would have a chance in an underwater competition is audacious folly. A down-on-his-luck substitute teacher, Fredi Cameron, played by George Lopez, guides the team, aided by Gwen, a regular teacher (Marisa Tomei) with whom he may or may not develop a love interest. The father (Esai Morales) of one of the students, Lorenzo Santillan (José Julián) is a roadblock to his son’s ambitions, but eventually comes around. The students encounter all sorts of conflicts and problems, some internal, some external (including the INS), and there is the required last-minute glitch that threatens the whole project, but which gets resolved in humorous, but ingenious, fashion.
The movie was based on a Wired magazine story, “La Vida Robot,” published in April, 2005. It has numerous Hollywood embellishments, but the last minute glitch is accurate, humor and all, and unlike some movies based on “true” stories, the basic story happened. Surprisingly, the movie underplays the group’s actual accomplishments at the competition, perhaps in the interest of simplification.
Three things lift this movie into the upper echelon of its genre: its story, acting, and political questions. As is Stand and Deliver, the competition is intellectual, putting it above countless sports yarns. The movie treats its audience with respect, not shying away from or simplifying the technology, because it can’t; technology is central to the story. While much of the Hollywood embellishment comes in the four students‘ stories away from the robot’s construction, the gripping and unique part of the drama is their minds: their ability to imagine, to experiment, to test, to overcome obstacles, and to manipulate technology and make it do wondrous things. In that, it has some of the same appeal as TV’s The Big Bang Theory.
While Lopez, Tomei, Morales, and Jamie Lee Curtis (as the Carl Hayden principal), all perform well, the four actors playing the students: Carlos PenaVega as Oscar, David Del Rio as Christian, Oscar Gutierrez as Luis, and Julián carry the show. These kids are different, and as happens in real life and the movies, they face ostracism and abuse because of it. Unlike many movies, the social problems are incidental, to be dealt with but not dwelt upon. The real challenge is making an underwater robot that can perform a complicated series of maneuvers and tasks. The four convey marvelously the excitement of that challenge, the triumph of ingenuity, competence, and hard work, and the camaraderie that often develops among those involved in difficult undertakings.
The four students were undocumented migrants, and the movie has some things to say about immigration. In the current immigration debate, one extreme sees immigrants as an unalloyed blessing, the wellspring that has flowed continuously since the founding, renewing American social, political, and economic life. The other extreme, which may find this movie annoying, sees immigration as an unalloyed curse, a threat to American ideals and solvency. However, America could obviously use more kids like these four, and the movie’s ever-menacing threat of deportation looks like insanity. Oscar’s dream is to join the military, and Lorenzo pointedly asks him why he wants to serve a country that wants to throw him out. The Dream Act was in part motivated by this story, and President Obama is shown briefly in the movie’s epilogue. While the movie is not going to change minds, it may prompt an acknowledgement from a few in the deport-the-illegal-immigrants camp that they can’t all be put in the “welfare-state moocher, anti-American” box.
It will be a shame if this movie does poorly at the box office, or does not get a wider audience than the Hispanic Americans to whom most of its advertising has been directly. It will appeal to anyone who likes inspirational, David-versus-Goliath movies, but it doesn’t simply recycle the conventions of the traditional formula. It’s an enjoyable and uplifting family film, especially for teenagers. Even if it drops out of the theaters quickly, it should become a DVD and download favorite.