In 2004, Wired contributor Joshua Davis published an article titled “La Vida Robot.” It chronicled the remarkable saga of four undocumented Hispanic high school students from Phoenix who entered a NASA-sponsored underwater robotics competition in California … and did better—much better—than anyone anticipated. Now, Soul Surfer director Sean McNamara has brought their story to cinematic life. It’s a classic underdog tale … that also highlights some of the realities facing many illegal immigrants striving to build better lives in America.
Oscar Vazquez is as patriotic a young man as you could hope to find, serving in Carl Hayden Community High School’s Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program in Phoenix. His dream? To enlist in the U.S. Army. But that dream nearly dies when an Army recruiter starts asking about his birth certificate. Without U.S. documentation, the recruiter says, there’s no way for him to serve.
Discouraged but not down-and-out, Oscar finds a flyer promoting the 5th Annual Underwater Robotics Competition at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He sees the competition—which was won by MIT students the year before—as perhaps his last opportunity apart from the Army to demonstrate what he can do.
But he can’t do it alone.
Enter Fredi Cameron, an unemployed engineer (with a Ph.D.) settling for work as a substitute science teacher at Carl Hayden. Part of the job, Principal Karen Lowry informs him, involves coaching an after-school engineering club. Fredi thinks he’s going to get off easy when no one shows up for the club. Then Oscar walks in the door with his audacious plan to build an underwater robot.
“The competition is in three months,” he tells Fredi, adding, “They scout for internships and jobs.” Fredi agrees to enter the competition as Oscar’s coach, on one condition: The young man has to recruit a support team.
And so he does.
Cristian is a computer savant who spends his time dodging bullies and sleeping in a makeshift shack behind his mother’s trailer. Lorenzo’s as good with mechanics as Cristian is with code, even though his home life with his beer-drinking father and rebellious younger brother is anything but good. And Luis is a quiet-but-muscular presence everyone thinks—mistakenly—has more brawn than brains.
It’s an exciting but volatile mix: four illegal Hispanic adolescents, all with gifts and liabilities, all striving to beat the odds (not to mention evading deportation officials) to change the trajectory of their lives with the help of a struggling substitute teacher searching for meaning almost as desperately as his students. But together they do cobble together a robot—not to mention deep loyalty—as they prepare for a trip to California to show the world what their underwater contraption can do.
More than just a reference to electronic castoffs, the titular spare parts in this story might best be summarized as Fredi’s inspiration, Oscar’s leadership, Cristian’s brains, Lorenzo’s dexterity and Luis’ muscles, all of which mesh to form a team far stronger than the sum of those parts. The guys creatively raise money and vigorously try to deal with huge personal issues and setbacks as they figure out ways to inexpensively build a robot that can compete with ones crafted at MIT, Cornell, Virginia Tech, Duke, etc.
Fredi helps as much as he can, giving advice and perspective … but most of all giving his time. This while he’s facing a personal crisis of his own. And even when he’s offered another job midway through the robot building project, he ultimately refuses to abandon his young charges. Fellow teacher Gwen Kolinsky, meanwhile, is just as fiercely committed to her students. She reminds Fredi that he’s earned the boys’ trust, something others have betrayed many times in their lives. “Here’s the thing about winning someone’s trust,” she exhorts. “You don’t break it.”
Oscar contemplates giving up but doesn’t. And, along the way, he wins the heart of a young woman named Karla who’s determined to encourage her new boyfriend and, on a deeper level, is ready to commit to him despite his tentative status as an illegal alien. [Spoiler Warning] After the competition, we’re told that Oscar submitted himself willingly to immigration officials to try to make right what his parents did wrong so many years before. He was subsequently deported—and then brought back to the U.S. when Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) helped him get citizenship. Oscar then finally fulfilled his dream of becoming an Army soldier, serving in Afghanistan.
Most of the Hispanic families we see are Catholic. Accordingly, characters wear crosses; one family has a large painting of Jesus; a brief scene takes place in a Catholic bookstore; and the proprietor of the store crosses himself. God is thanked (by way of exclamation). Principal Lowry is saving money for a trip to Italy, where she says she’s plans on “Eat, Pray, Loving my way through the place.”
Fredi and Gwen flirt. Oscar and Karla kiss. Karla wears cleavage-baring outfits, and she eyes Oscar’s torso admiringly as he tries on a shirt in a thrift store. Lorenzo asks Fredi if he’ll take him to Hooters if they win the competition, a conversation that’s referenced again later.
Cristian is repeatedly beaten up. Witnessing one such attack, Lorenzo proceeds to pound on the bully, hitting him over and over again in a fight that tumbles down a half flight of stairs at school. Lorenzo also breaks up a would-be armed robbery his brother and two other friends are about to engage in. That scene involves another fistfight before the teens all flee the police. We see police officers arresting people, forcing them against a wall as they’re cuffed.
Fredi throws something (in a fit of frustration). Gwen slaps Fredi’s face (in a faux confrontation Fredi stages to teach his guys about determination).
God’s name is misused once or twice. We hear two or three uses each of “d–n,” “h—” and “a–.” “P—y” is used twice as a synonym for coward. One use each of “freaking” and “screw you.”
Lorenzo’s father drinks a beer. And Fredi shows up to ply the older man with tequila in order to convince him that what Lorenzo is doing is worthwhile; the two men throw back shots. A chronic thief, Lorenzo’s brother Ramiro steals cans of Red Bull and packs of cigarettes (which we see in his backpack).
During a job interview, Principal Lowry asks Fredi if he needs to “pee in a cup” for her, giving him the chance to say whether there are drug issues she needs to know about. He says “No,” then adds, “Unless that’s how you get your kicks.”
Being on the run from immigration officials is part and parcel of Oscar’s story. And the film paints that evasion in sympathetic terms, with various characters (including Oscar’s mother) lying and deceiving federal agents. An Army recruiter even tips Oscar off that immigration officials have been asking about him.
As mentioned, Ramiro steals often. But Lorenzo’s no saint either, and Fredi catches him trying to break into Principal Lowry’s car. (The administrator uses the incident as leverage to make Lorenzo be a part of the robotics team.) Oscar lies to his mother.
An extended scene played for humor involves Lorenzo trying to find a woman in a grocery store to buy tampons for the team. (They plan on using them to stop a leak in a plastic case housing the robot’s control board.)
Watching Spare Parts, I couldn’t help but cheer as Oscar, Lorenzo, Cristian and Luis (with their teacher, Fredi Cameron) overcome one brush with adversity after another. Their journey is a poignant, inspirational, David-vs.-Goliath tale—socketed into a film that dials down the content concerns (even in a PG-13 movie) to pretty much just a smattering of mild profanity and some realistic violence (teen fistfights, a thwarted robbery).
Having repeatedly seen trailers for Spare Parts, this is exactly the kind of story I was expecting. What I wasn’t expecting was a surprisingly complex treatment of illegal immigration. While eschewing overt political soapbox sermons about this hot-button issue, it clearly shows us how illegal immigration results in painful deportations that frequently split families and/or leave youngsters feeling isolated and afraid, perpetually on the lookout for law enforcement officials.
The film doesn’t fully answer the thorny question about who’s more to blame for that pain: the moms and dads who shouldn’t have immigrated illegally to begin with or the government that’s enforcing the laws of the land. But it does take sides, putting real names to the issue and inviting moviegoers to both engage and sympathize with the plight of Mexican families struggling to stay intact while pursuing their American dreams on the U.S. side of the border. And Oscar becomes a poster child for Barak Obama’s DREAM Act, which grants amnesty for some “illegal” minors.
No matter what one’s politics are on the subject, though, it definitely infuses Spare Parts with an unexpected level of real-world complexity that will demand lots of post-film reflection, research on the real-life realities and dinnertime conversation about justice. It also yields high levels of inspiration to do something significant with your life.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.