Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Movie Review: Spare Parts

Spare Parts 2015 ★★★½

Starring George Lopez, Marisa Tomei, Jaime Lee Curtis

How four underdogs from the mean streets of Phoenix took on the best from M.I.T. in the national underwater bot championship.

That's the tagline from the Wired article, La Vida Robot, that brought these four kids to national attention. Don't go read that article until you've seen the movie though because when this movie says "based on a true story" they aren't kidding. This movie hews surprisingly close to the real story.

Oscar, Luis, Christian, and Lorenzo are brought together for very different reasons to form their high school's robot club. They'd never seen an ocean, had no funds, and would be going up against top schools from all over the country. Teacher and club sponsor Frank Cameron (George Lopez) has his own problems, beginning with the reason he left a lucrative engineering career to teach in an underfunded school. He cares nothing for the club and is not very encouraging about their chances but as they all gradually connect he becomes a true mentor.

Along the way we meet the plucky, slightly wacky principal (Jaime Lee Curtis) and the savvy computer teacher (Marisa Tomei) who makes Frank invest his whole self in teaching. These stars are what initially attracted me to the film and Tomei in particular reminded us of what good acting can be done with seemingly little effort. The acting was good all round, in fact, with George Lopez being the only weak link and showing a fairly limited range. Luckily the story really centers on the young men and those actors were engaging and invested us in the story. Until the story is set up the it feels a bit like a TV movie but once the tale is in full swing the movie blossoms into life and loses any stiffness.

Spare Parts also provided insights into Hispanic life. The kids are all undocumented Mexican-Americans. The many ways being "without papers" injects itself into each person's life were eye opening to me. Illegal immigration is a flash point and I almost didn't mention this detail because of that. But it was a fact of life for the real kids in this story and to leave it out of the movie would have been to serve up something bland to the audience. The fact is that the kids aren't debating politics or economics here. They are simply trying to live their lives as best as possible under difficult conditions that occasionally arise. That is how the movie treats it. It is not a soap box by any means.

We know the overall outline of the story as we enter the theater. Determination and ingenuity can surmount incredible odds. The kids become their best selves by rising above what is not provided by an overtaxed school system and what is denied by a system where it is easy to get lost in the cracks. But just because a story is recognizable doesn't mean it is not worth seeing, especially since this one hews so close to the truth. We are given these stories so they remind us that we ourselves can overcome adversity, even when we can't see the path ahead of us.

Spare Parts is a heart-warming family film that not only families will find well worth watching.

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