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Starring George Lopez, Marisa Tomei, Jamie Lee Curtis, Carlos PenaVega, Esai Morales, Jose Julian, David Del Rio, Oscar Gutierrez, Alessandro Rosaldo, Alexa PenaVega

Directed by Sean McNamara

Written by Elissa Matsueda

From the “Wired” magazine article “La Vida Robot” by Joshua Davis

The film is based on a true story that was the topic of the magazine article.

Produced by David Alpert, Rick Jacobs, Leslie Kolins Small, George Lopez, Ben Odell

Cinematography by Richard Wong

Edited by Maysie Hoy

“Spare Parts,” a smart, creative and highly-enjoyable drama about a team of intelligent, hard-working and ambitious high school students who enter a prestigious robotics competition, and their dedicated science teacher who mentors, educates, pushes and inspires them, is a rousing, uplifting, spirited–and excellent–film and a great start to the new film year. George Lopez shines as the science teacher, and the film is simply among the best work in his career. Lopez is also one of the film’s producers, and he deserves congratulations and kudos for presenting such an inspiring film at this time: The film is especially timely because of its focus on immigration struggles—many of the main characters are immigrants–and the movie is doubly-timely for being released amid the renewed, much-needed focus in the U.S. in recent years on science, technology, engineering and math.

“Dreams are colorless,” and the film is an inspiring film that does not focus on people succeeding dramatically in athletics—but rather on people succeeding dramatically in academics–and those are two important messages of the film, Lopez said Tuesday night, Jan. 13, at an advance screening of the film presented by the Center for American Progress, a D.C.-based think tank, at the E Street Cinema in Washington, D.C. Lopez spoke passionately, lovingly, eloquently and emotionally at the screening—serving as an excellent spokesman, promoter and representative of this fine film—and the reason for his high level of emotion is evident in “Spare Parts” from the first entertaining, story-establishing moments to the highly-charged, stand-up-and-cheer, rousing and emotional third act. Lopez noted, accurately, that this film is about many elements of life, society, culture and history, and the film is full of important, timely and pressing messages, themes, morals and lessons.

The film is scheduled to be released nationwide on Friday, Jan. 16, 2015–and everyone should see it this weekend. There has not been as big of an advance advertising, marketing and publicity push by the studios across all media as the film deserves, and if this film doesn’t attract widespread audiences and big box office, that would be a crime of cinema. The film deserves big audiences—and big audiences deserve this movie, which everyone, from the youngest kids to seniors, from all types of demographics, will enjoy, thoroughly and wholeheartedly. “Spare Parts,” right out of the box office gate for 2015, being released in just the third weekend of the year, is, immediately, the first great film of the year. And that is not overstating the case.

Interestingly, January is usually reserved for an odd duel purpose in film–a dumping ground for mediocre fare and a showcase for the previous year’s prestigious, honored films, in advance of the Academy Award nominations and show. “Spare Parts” breaks down that mold–and ends up being an excellent film for January, and also a film that can proudly stand tall directly next to the other excellent films from last year that are in the theaters. It’s that good.

“Spare Parts” tells the true story—and most of the events portrayed in the film actually happened, according to Oscar Vasquez, who the main high school student character is based on, and according to Lopez—about four undocumented immigrant high school students who are as lovable, ambitious, hard-working as they are intelligent, and who use those qualities to enter a prestigious national underwater robotics competition. The catch is that the kids are undocumented Mexican immigrants, are from struggling middle-class or lower-middle-class families who are struggling every day just to get by, have very little money, have very little big-business support, have very little big-money support from their middle-class community, and who attend a high school that is over-crowded, frenzied and dealing with its own getting-by problems every single day. These four scrappy, industrious kids—and they are scrappy and industrious in every sense of the word—band together and bond together, under the devoted, equally-lovable, yet solidly grounded and reality-based, guidance of Lopez’s teacher, and they all, students and teacher, cobble together literal spare parts to build the necessary robot that they need to build to compete in the contest.

The kids, led by the determined Oscar, and, eventually, continually guided and steered by the able, increasingly dedicated and increasingly involved teacher, Fredi Cameron, who initially had doubts about leading the initially-stalled after-school robotics group, literally use spare parts and about $800 of donated, collected and solicited community money to build their robot. They spend afternoons and evenings after school going over their drafts, their sketches, their drawings, their plans, their ideas—and their dreams—and, along the way—and this not a cliché, not overly-sentimental, not schmaltzy and not hokey—they learn dozens of lessons. The kids, and Cameron, movingly learn about themselves, about working together as a team, about growing up and maturing, about hard work, about studying, about working toward and for a dream, about working to escape their dire situations in life, about working for a better life, about working to better themselves in all areas, and about learning what it means to work together as a team to reach a very real, very obtainable dream.

And those are just several of the lessons, themes and messages that are explored throughout “Spare Parts.” And it is this continual exploration of various aspects and tenets of life, society, culture, race and politics that keeps the movie smart. There is always, even during the more dramatic, emotional or comedic scenes or interludes, an underlying smartness and intelligence that lifts the film above the norm. The writing is smart, the acting portrayals are smart all around—not just from A-listers like Lopez and a wonderful Jamie Lee Curtis and a wonderful Marisa Tomei, but from all of the other leading and supporting actors—and the production and direction are smart. Smart in the sense that the camera movements, the pacing, the story, the dialogue remain consistently down-to-earth, grounded, common-sense-oriented and reality-based—but not so reality-based or grounded that the film is off-putting, disturbing, overhwhelmingly negative, boring, bland or awkward. The producers and assured director Sean McNamara always remember that they are making a movie, a positive movie, and an uplifting movie at that—and that’s important and notable because too many films that try to be “real” end up being so real, they lose the focus that they are also supposed to be entertaining and enjoyable, as well.

Thus, despite the real-life positive outcome of the story—that’s not giving anything away, because it’s important to note that this is, at its core, a positive, uplifting film, as a film and in relation to the real-life events that inspired the movie—the film manages to tell a story that can be bittersweet, moving, involving and emotional on several layers, also, without becoming a too-real downer. Any film, of course, has to have its ups and downs, and every true-life story reaches some uncomfortable levels and scenes—of course—but it’s worth noting that some true-life stories are indeed truly uplifting, and they do not have to be bogged down by unnecessary, horrible, downer tragedy and violence and death and destruction. Some stories, like the story told in “Spare Parts,” are, again, indeed truly positive and uplifting, and it’s a compliment to Lopez, McNamara and the actors that everyone seemed to remember through the film that true-life stories can be fun, enjoyable and entertaining and, again, not be brought down by too much tragedy.

The story of “Spare Parts” starts by following the scruffy, scrappy, industrious Oscar, an 18-year-old high school senior who desperately wants to succeed, to survive and to join the military and serve his country—yes, his country, the United States, not his native Mexico—as he tries to rise above the problems floating all around him at school, at home and in his community, to simply enter this robotics competition and prove he is smart, intelligent, worthy and a success. Through entertaining trials of recruitment at his school in Phoenix, Carl Hayden High School, Oscar eventually enlists the help of three other students who, despite having their own individual sets of problems, just happen to be as exceptionally smart and talented and ambitious as Oscar. There is one thing, too, that Lopez, McNamara and insightful, original writer Elissa Matsueda remembered to show clearly and continually throughout this movie: These kids are kids. Jamie Lee Curtis, in one of her best roles in years, as the school’s wonderfully insightful, cheerful and tough principal, knows this, and she reminds Cameron of that fact regularly: These are kids. In one insightful scene, Curtis delivers a reminder, and lesson, to Cameron, the teacher, about kids that everyone needs to remember and take to heart.

This aspect of presenting kids as kids is important because to portray kids in films or shows or plays, it’s important to let those kid qualities come through regularly—otherwise, you enter that twilight zone that appears too often in entertainment where little kids and teens act, speak and present themselves like 35-year-olds, which is simply ridiculous, even in the context of drama and entertainment. At certain times, in films and plays and in life, it’s just important to simply just let kids be kids.

And, again, the filmmakers remember this in “Spare Parts,” so you have not just a film about four exceptionally smart and talented kids entering a national robotics competition with little money and literal spare parts against huge, well-funded and big-time universities and research programs, but you also have a film that is about four kids finding their way in life, progressing, learning, maturing and growing up. And there is nothing more important than that—as Cameron reminds them occasionally, it may not matter if you win this competition, it’s the effort, and the work, and the fact that you made it so far with so little. That’s a major life lesson, and that’s presented in the film, against the backdrop of the competition and the four boys’ growth as they work together. Put all of these factors together—along with not-so-subtle, but well-handled subplots about immigration hassles and legal issues and economic, societal, cultural and family issues—and you have a potent collection of plots, subplots, themes and messages presented in “Spare Parts.”

It’s so great to see actors portraying teenagers at times like actual teens, again. One of the students, Lorenzo (superbly, touchingly, subtly and exceptionally played by an always-engaging Jose Julian) simply wants to be rewarded for his work in the robotics competition by going to Hooters, which he has always wanted to do. Another student, a big, lovable bear of a gentle giant guy with a football build and a quiet, soft heart as big as his stocky build, sits at home one night, studying math and engineering, and, in a just poignant, moving moment, quietly asks his Mom if he is smart or not. She tells him, yes, of course you are, and she means it, and she lovingly kisses him to show her love. In two other beautiful scenes of insight, the kids, visiting the ocean for the first time in their late teens, cut loose and run into the Pacific Ocean (the robotics competition is held on the shore in California) with all of the exuberance and love of life and abandon that a teenager has at a moment such as that! And in another poignant scene, the kids, in their cramped hotel room at the competition site, and on a very rare trip away from home, simply start bouncing on their beds and having a pillow fight—like the kids that they are beneath the bluster and machismo and struggling and ambition.

And, along the way, the various adults supervising and overseeing these great kids—Curtis’ spirited, lively and caring principal; Marisa Tomei’s equally smart and caring fellow teacher who takes a bit of shine to Lopez’s Cameron (but not too much of a shine, and the romance, like everything else in the film, also does not become too schmaltzy or corny); the always-reliable Esai Morales as Lorenzo’s tough, macho and, initially, non-understanding father; and Lopez’s initially-conflicted, hesitant science and engineering teacher, Cameron—come to find that there’s still room to grow and learn and discover new things and be surprised and enthused and confident and energized yet again in the sometimes confusing and fearful forests of their own muddled, struggling middle-aged lives. Yes, that sounds corny and sentimental, but if you live long enough, one of life’s lessons is that it is never too late to learn again, to be energized at new things again, and to be eternally surprised and jolted awake and alive by the miracles adults can learn from the minds of kids and teens and twentysomethings. This, too, is a message taught in “Spare Parts,” and you get to enjoy not only the exuberance of the kids’ work to enter and succeed at the robotics competition, but you get to be inspired by the character development of the adults in this story, too.

Eventually, the kids, always reliable and positive and quick-thinking, overcome a host of obstacles, they build their underwater robot with that $800 and those very real spare parts, they travel to the competition, they enter the competition, and….well, you have to see the film to find out what happens. That’s part of the fun of the story, also.

At the Jan. 13 screening at the E Street Cinema, Lopez, the real-life Oscar Vazquez, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, Illinois Democrat, and Marshal Fitz, the vice president for immigration policy at the Center for American Progress, talked about the film’s dealings with immigration issues, deportation issues, documentation issues, and the very real political basketball that immigration has become with the Republicans in the most-recent 113th Congress and the current 114th Congress. This relates directly to the movie, because “Spare Parts” deals, also, with the kids’ undocumented status and how that affects their lives in general, their education, their family life, and their educational, maturation and career aspirations. Amid everything else, these young, struggling, smart and ambitious kids—who only want to succeed in life in the United States—have to deal with federal agents stalking them and trying to deport them and, possibly, trying to also deport their family members, friends, colleagues, relatives and neighbors—all of whom are simply working and struggling every day just to live, to learn, to succeed, to survive.

Lopez and Fitz noted that this week, the week of Jan. 11-17, 2015, Congressional Republicans were going to take measures to destroy the immigration reform policies that the Obama administration initiated to ease the burdens of certain segments of the United States’ immigration population. They warned that the Republican action would be detrimental to the lives of thousands of people—people like the successful, ambitious smart kids in “Spare Parts.”

And on Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2015, one day after the screening and the comments from Lopez, Durbin, Fitz and the others, the U.S. House of Representatives “adopted an amendment…to freeze a 2012 program allowing illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children to apply for work permits,” according to The Hill newspaper. According to the Hill: Passage fell largely along party lines by a vote of 218-209. But 26 Republicans, many of whom represent districts with large minority populations, voted against the amendment. Adoption of the amendment onto a $40 billion base funding bill for the Department of Homeland Security makes it unlikely to pass in the Senate, where it will need 60 votes to advance. The amendment would prohibit funds for new or renewed applications for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Under the program, immigrants who came to the country as children can delay deportations for three years at a time. Those immigrants must have arrived in the country before the age of 16 and have lived in the U.S. since June 2007. They are also required to either be in school or have graduated. The House passed similar legislation in August [2014] to roll back the DACA program. Eleven Republicans, 10 of whom are still House members, voted against the measure three months before the midterm elections. House Republicans are set to leave Washington later Wednesday [Jan. 14] for their annual retreat in Hershey, Pa. Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) noted that Republicans presented their own immigration principles at last year’s retreat, including to provide “an opportunity for legal residence and citizenship for those who were brought to this country as children through no fault of their own.” “Does it mean anything to you anymore? Don’t care about children?” Gutiérrez asked Republicans. “Because that is precisely what you are saying today.”

Perhaps every member of the U.S. House who voted to take away the citizenship of the very kids similar to those portrayed in “Spare Parts” needs to sit in a dark room at that retreat and watch “Spare Parts”—over and over and over again until the reality of the issue gets through their brains.

Meanwhile, everyone who is fortunate enough not to be a member of Congress can do something to help the cause of these immigrant kids this weekend: go out to a neighborhood theater, see “Spare Parts,” and celebrate the rousing, uplifting, spirited tale of a bunch of kids who just happen to be incredibly smart, talented, ambitious and lovable—and immigrants. 

John Hanshaw

John Hanshaw

founded WFI in the Fall of 2007. He has worked in film and television for over ten years at such institutions as NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation), PBS and most recently National Geographic. He has degrees from Amherst College, Cambridge University, and GW Law.