By Bill Goodykoontz/Gannett News Service
“Spare Parts” is the kind of feel-good, underdog movie that almost can’t help getting waylaid by cliches.
Happily, the real story is strong enough — and unlikely enough — to overcome most of those kinds of problems. Not all, but most. The film is based on Joshua Davis’ book (in turn based on his article for Wired magazine), which told the story of a robotics team from Carl Hayden Community High School in Phoenix. In 2004 the team, made up of four kids, won an underwater robotics competition, beating colleges, including the defending champion, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Presumably no spoiler alert is necessary; the event took place 11 years ago and was also chronicled in the 2014 documentary “Underwater Dreams.”
But that’s the challenge: If the results of the competition are known going in, you have to find other ways to make the story compelling. Director Sean McNamara and screenwriter Elissa Matsueda do their best.
The competition, in fact, is thrilling, even we know the outcome. It’s the backstory that sometimes lapses into melodrama, some of it based in fact, some of it created for the movie.
Fredi Cameron (George Lopez) is a scientist hired as a substitute teacher at Carl Hayden. That he is overqualified by an order of magnitude does not escape the suspicious principal (Jamie Lee Curtis, hamming it up like she got lost on the way to a ditsy comedy). But the school needs teachers, so Fredi gets his job.
Oscar Vazquez (Carlos PenaVega) is desperate to join the Army. He comes across information about the robotics competition and pours his energy into coming up with a team to enter.
It’s difficult, but he manages to recruit Cristian Arcega (David Del Rio), the brains of the operation; Lorenzo Santillan (Jose Julian), the mechanical expert, and Luis Arranda (Oscar Guitirrez), the muscle. Like Oscar, they are all undocumented, and their challenges at home threaten to derail the team, as challenges must in this kind of movie.
Lorenzo has perhaps the most compelling story. His mother has been deported, and his father (Esai Morales) always sides with Lorenzo’s brother whenever there is trouble, always blaming Lorenzo — a fact his brother takes full advantage of.
There are reasons, which we learn throughout the movie.
Yes, the troubles are just what you would expect, as the film takes its cue from any number of underdog sports movies. Can the teammates put aside individual differences long enough to pull together for the competition?
We know the answer to that one.
Can Lorenzo and his father be reconciled?
You can probably guess the answer to that, too.
And will Fredi find love with Gwen?
Who? Oh yeah, Gwen. She’s a teacher at the school played by Marisa Tomei, who drops in and out of the story intermittently as a plot device and potential romantic interest.
Yet for all that, knowing what we know, it’s still fun to see the smug faces of the M.I.T. students when they trot out their expensive robot, built of the latest high-tech materials. As for the Carl Hayden kids, they build their robot out of … well, see the title.
Of course, that also refers to the kids themselves, in a rather heavy-handed way. And as that suggests, they’re far more effective working together. This is true of the movie, as well — when the team is together is when it shines brightest.
The real-life story doesn’t have as happy an ending as the movie, but that’s often the case. As a film, “Spare Parts” doesn’t break any new ground. It’s a pleasant journey that may not always arise to the inspirational heights it seeks, but it’s not for lack of trying.
Pantelion presents a film directed by Sean McNamara and written by Elissa Matsueda. Running time: 113 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for some language and violence). Opens Friday at local theaters.