REVIEW WRITTENBY NATHAN LERNER/For 21st Century Media
In an underwater robotics competition, what chances would a team of Hispanic immigrants from an inner city high school in Phoenix have against rival college teams? Bear in mind that we’re not talking about some obscure universities. One of them just happens to be the prestigious engineering school, M.I.T.
This familiar underdog theme, with a Latino twist, pervades “Spare Parts.”
When Fredi Cameron (George Lopez) applies for a job as a substitute teacher at Carl Hayden High School, its principal (Jamie Lee Curtis) is understandably suspicious. After all, Fredi has a degree in electrical engineering. He spent fifteen years at the same engineering firm. Then, he suddenly started jumping around for short stints at various companies. What’s going on? Why is he reduced to applying for a much less remunerative non-engineering job as a lowly substitute teacher? Does he have some deep dark secret that interferes with his ability to hold a steady job? With some hesitation, the principal hires Fredi to fill a vacancy caused by a teacher, who is out on maternity leave.
One of the school’s students, Oscar Vazquez (Carlos PenaVega), is a straight arrow member of junior R.O.T.C. He assumes that this will expedite his acceptance to the U.S. Army. However, when Oscar visits a recruiting station, he is rebuffed. Oscar is an undocumented immigrant. It turns out that without papers, he can’t get in.
The dispirited Oscar discovers a flyer about an upcoming underwater robotics contest. Now, he has a new focus for his gung-ho proclivities.
He approaches Fredi about sponsoring a club devoted to building an underwater robot for the competition. Fredi agrees, but tasks Oscar with recruiting the complementary members of a four-member team. Oscar ferrets out four fellow Mexican Americans; Cristian Arcega (David Del Rio), a brainy tech head; Lorenzo Santillan (Jose Julian), who has plenty of practical experience as a law-bending grease monkey; and Luis Arranda (Oscar Guitirrez), who isn’t terribly bright, but can provide all of the requisite muscle.
The newly-formed club is confronted by a plethora of problems. First of all, there are conflicts between its members that threaten to explode the group. A turning point takes place when Lorenzo rushes to the aid of the nerdish Cristian, who is being bullied by another boy. Fists fly and the bully retreats with his proverbial tail between his legs. Suddenly, the group has a sense of cohesion.
However, other problems remain. How can they raise the money necessary to build the underwater robot? Lorenzo deploys his practical experience from repairing cars to figure out ways to recycle spare parts, hence the film’s title. However, there is still a need for $800 to buy parts that need to be purchased new. The boys solicit contributions from local businesses. When their fundraising efforts come up short of the goal, Lorenzo kicks in the balance. This violates the rules of the competition. If the organizing committee finds out, their team will be disqualified. So Lopez swears the boys to secrecy.
Then, there are intrafamilial tensions. Oscar’s mom (Alessandra Rosaldo) thinks that the club is waste of time and is only distracting her son from more productive activities. Lorenzo has an ongoing strife with his father (Esai Morales), who is raising his two sons as a single parent. His wife has been deported back to Mexico. He favors his younger son, who he feels has a better chance of getting ahead in life. He holds Lorenzo responsible for every misdeed, actually perpetrated by his younger brother. The emotionally fraught confrontation between Fredi and Lorenzo’s father is one of the film’s best. In his role as a father, Morales exudes memorable intensity.
The efforts to design and build the underwater robot forms the film’s narrative spine. This is supplemented by several subplots. Oscar has a crush on a classmate, Karla (Alexa PenaVega). If the two paramours seem to have a hard-earned comfort level, consider that they are married in real life. Meanwhile, Fredi has a budding relationship with one of his fellow teachers, Gwen (Marisa Tomei).
In the background of an opening scene, Latino males are lined up in the background during a random sweep. “Spare Parts” resonates with a prevailing sense of government bias against Latinos. For Anglos, the film will provide a better honed appreciation of what Latinos have to endure, particularly the gnawing fear of I.N.S. harassment.
This film may seem farfetched. However, it is inspired by a real life story, which took place in 2005. In fact, the events are depicted in the documentary, “Underwater Dreams.” The story was originally reported in “Wired” magazine as, “La Vida Robot,” by journalist, Joshua Davis. In her screenwriting debut, Elissa Matsueda adapted the article with considerable skill. She imbues the film with considerable pathos. There is some artistic license on display. For instance, the character portrayed by George Lopez, is a composite of two teachers, Fredi Lajvardi and Allan Cameron.
Sean McNamara provides competent, if unexceptional, direction. He previously helmed, “Soul Surfer,” another feel-good movie. That one was based on a true story about a teenage girl, who lost an arm during a shark attack, but returned to surfing.
The film makes adroit use of end codas to detail some developments, which took place beyond the temporal scope of the film. After the robotics competition and graduating college, Oscar was deported from the country. Courtesy of the intervention by Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, Oscar was allowed to return to the United States. Eventually, he did two tours in Afghanistan and finally earned citizenship.
“Spare Parts” is an earnest and uplifting film. It has plenty of inspiration to spare.
“Spare Parts” *** PG-13 (for some language and violence) 113 minutes
Film critic Nathan Lerner sees more than 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.