“Spare Parts” is a feel-good movie that is curiously awkward in places, but nonetheless manages to deliver the emotional impact of the underdogs riding to victory. And best of all, it’s a true story.
Craggy-faced George Lopez plays Dr. Fredi Cameron, a Ph.D. who somehow landed as a substitute teacher in an obscure backwater high school in Arizona. We later learn that he’s suffered a family tragedy, which doesn’t completely explain his descent into remarkable underachievement. Plus, he’s approaching that tender age when employers practice the kind of silent and deadly age discrimination that will discourage even the most accomplished and self-assured.
Dr. Cameron finds himself in a place where accomplishments and self-assurance are in short supply. This obscure high school is populated largely by Hispanic immigrant kids, many of whom are residing in the United States illegally. Their parents work very hard to hold things together, but they not only deal with the kind of degrading poverty that doesn’t allow for lunch money, they’re always on the lookout for INS agents who, under the current law, are looking to break up intact families through summarily deporting those without the proper papers.
Yes, there’s a bit of a political agenda going on here, as the viewer watches these four “illegal” high school students form a robotics club with Dr. Cameron. Together they enter a competition (on a shoestring budget), putting Dr. Cameron at risk with the law for transporting the four across state lines to enter the competition in Santa Barbara, California.
Director Sean McNamara does a good job educating the viewer about the aspects of the competition itself and how these boys were able to creatively substitute ordinary materials for expensive machine parts. But somehow, the secondary casting is disappointingly amateurish, including venerable, proven actresses like Jamie Lee Curtis (as the high school’s principal) and Marissa Tomei (as one of the teachers). The film probably would have been improved with fewer shots of Lopez cheering during the competition and more in-depth coverage of the relationships between the boys themselves, which introduced some promising edginess but wasn’t well developed.
Yes, it would have been a little hard to believe that some unknown high school kids spending $800 for supplies at Home Depot could have teamed up to construct an underwater robot capable of beating the thousands of dollars spent by the best and brightest team from M.I.T. But somehow, spare parts and perseverance and teamwork prevail, and how can we not cheer for these determined homespun heroes?
RONALD P. SALFEN is the parish associate at Woodhaven Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.