Posted on January 15, 2015 at 5:58 pm
It really happened. Four undocumented high school kids from the poorest of communities took on the most brilliant engineering students from the country’s top colleges in a robotics competition and won. The contest results were one in a million, but once it happened, the movie version was inevitable. George Lopez produced the film and stars as the students’ reluctant coach and teacher, Fredi Cameron (based on the two real-life teacher/coaches, Allan Cameron and Fredi Lajvardi).
Unlike its robotic superstar, there is not much ingenuity in the storyline. Everything added on, especially the fictionalized backstory for Cameron, is predictable and superfluous and distracting. Lopez is an amiable presence, but these detours reveal his limits as an actor. We want to focus on the students and their robot, to see them solve problems in engineering and teamwork (which is a form of engineering, too). But too much of the running time is devoted to Cameron’s past and his possible romance with a fellow teacher, played by the always-wonderful Marisa Tomei. If she played the coach, this would have been a much better movie. Still, with a storyline like this one, it cannot help being fun to watch.
Cameron is an engineer with a PhD who tells the school’s principal (Jamie Lee Curtis, in a performance of great warmth and wit) he wants a temporary job as a substitute teacher. She notes that he has moved around a lot, but she does not have any alternatives. He agrees to coach the school’s engineering club because he is assured no one will want to join.
Oscar (Carlos PenaVega) shows up with a flier. He is an outstanding JROTC cadet and was crushed to learn that he cannot join the US Military without proof of citizenship. He thinks participating in a NASA-sponsored robotics competition will make it harder to be turned down. Cameron reluctantly agrees to help.
They assemble a team that includes the brain (David Del Rio), the kid who always gets into trouble but is a whiz at mechanics (José Julián), and the muscle (Oscar Javier Gutierrez II) — one problem they cannot engineer around is that someone has to be strong enough to lift their robot. Each has his own challenges. The brain is bullied at school. The troublemaker is under a lot of pressure to take care of his brother. The muscle has to be able to pass a tough oral exam at the competition to show that every member of the team understands the details of the robot. Oscar falls in love with a pretty classmate named Karla (sweetly played by PenaVega’s real-life wife, Alexa), but worries that his illegal status puts her at risk. All of the students are hiding from the ICE, which has already sent one of their mothers back to Mexico.
And then there is the challenge of the competition itself. Not only does this robot have to operate underwater, it has to execute an immensely complicated series of tasks in a limited time period. When the team shows up, they are so certain they will lose anyway that they decide they might as well compete with the college teams instead of the other high school teams. The night before they have to compete the robot has a disastrous leak. Their very creative and inexpensive (and hilarious) solution is one of the film’s high points.
The film’s name refers to more than the repurposed junk used to assemble the robot. Their triumph is bittersweet because their undocumented status prevents them from taking the opportunities available to those who are citizens. This film makes it clear that it is our loss, as it prevents our country from benefiting from the perseverance and skill that made an $800 robot created by kids kick the robotic butt of the $18,000 robot from MIT.
Parents should know that this film includes some teen crime including armed robbery, violence including bullying, some strong language and tense family confrontations and teen kissing.
Family discussion: What was the team’s most difficult challenge? Who was the teacher who inspired you the most and why?
If you like this, try: the book by Joshua Davis, Spare Parts: Four Undocumented Teenagers, One Ugly Robot, and the Battle for the American Dream, and films like “October Sky” and “Stand and Deliver”