Ten years ago, Wired magazine published an article about an unlikely quartet of four Phoenix high school students—three of them undocumented immigrants from Mexico—who formed an engineering club and entered a national underwater robotics competition.
The young men overcame numerous obstacles—a lack of funds, family problems, immigration enforcement efforts, to name a few—to achieve a surprising degree of success in a competition against some of the top college robotics clubs in the nation.
It was the type of magazine piece that sets off light bulbs in Hollywood, and a decade later, the students’ story debuts on big screens Friday in “Spare Parts.”
The movie certainly has formula elements of other school films that have preceded it over the decades. The new teacher in the tough urban school (“Blackboard Jungle”). Check. The underestimated Latino students handling some tough academic challenges (“Stand and Deliver”). Check. The mentor whose commitment is questioned by his young charges, as in “The Mighty Ducks.” Check.
OK, “Mighty Ducks” is not often mentioned among the great education movies. But besides the mentor aspect, I couldn’t help but think of the youth hockey movie when the students of “Spare Parts” got to their competition at the University of California-Santa Barbara. The real robotics competition may or may not have had play-by-play announcers, but such bit players are de rigeur in a competition movie such as “Mighty Ducks” or “Spare Parts” to inform the audience of strategies and scores.
“Spare Parts” touches on any number of education themes: STEM (science, techonology, and mathematics) education, poverty, and undocumented students.
The four team members are Oscar (Carlos PenaVega), the would-be U.S. Army enlistee whose dream is dashed by his undocumented status; Cristian (David Del Rio), the relative science nerd and brain of the group; Lorenzo (José Julián), who is persuaded to redirect his mechanical skills from his criminal proclivities; and Luis (Oscar Gutierrez), a hefty student who struggles a bit to prove he can pull his academic weight on the team.
Mentoring the students is comedian George Lopez as Fred Cameron, who is between engineering jobs when he seeks a substitute teaching position from the bubbly principal (Jamie Lee Curtis) of Carl Hayden Community High School.
Lopez’s character is a merger of two real-life teachers who guided the students at Hayden High. His delivery of some lightly comic lines brightens the film, though he has his dramatic moments, too, such as a confrontation with the abusive father of Lorenzo that reveals some of the substitute teacher’s own demons.
Lopez also has a love interest in the form of fellow teacher Gwen (Marisa Tomei). Overall, he comes across as a substitute teacher you would have liked to have had in school, one who might have inspired some interest in science even among those, like me, who took the bare minimum.
Director Sean McNamara didn’t have to veer too far from the Wired story that inspired the film, including the critical roles played by PVC pipe and women’s tampons in a robotic device dubbed “Stinky.” The teams must guide their robots through various underwater challenges, but the students also must meet individually with some sort of committee of judges to prove they are not just being tugged along by their teammates.
Wired republished the 2005 magazine piece, “La Vida Robot,” last month in anticipation of the movie. It also ran an update about the four students, and a conversation with the two teachers who mentored the team, Allan Cameron and Fredi Lajvardi.
The students’ lives took some interesting turns. In an op-ed piece on Thursday in The New York Times, Joshua Davis, the writer of the original Wired article (and a followup book called Spare Parts), discusses those turns and how the four students are emblems of the debate over immigration, legal status for the undocumented, and the DREAM Act.
Unlike the fictional Mighty Ducks, whose hit debut inspired two sequels, the four members of Team “Stinky” will probably have to settle for just one movie of their lives.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.