Parts Per Nil: McNamara Family Value Aesthetic Lessens Impact of Immigration Issues
As we meander through the opening credits of Sean McNamara’s Spare Parts, we come to the inevitable information announcing that the film is based on a magazine article from Wired by Joshua Davis (who, interestingly, directed a film back in 2000 called West Coast, which has not been released). Significant liberties have been taken to relate the rather inspirational story of four Hispanic (and undocumented) high school students that formed a robotic club and conquered a contest formerly ruled by reigned collegiate MIT students. While McNamara, whose other notable directorial outing was 2011’s family faith-based film Soul Surfer, is always well-meaning with this endeavor and doesn’t lodge into schmaltzy overtones, events and certain realities are unduly softened, as if we were watching a parable about disenfranchised minority teenagers from a slightly more progressive alternate universe.
Oscar Vazquez (Carlos PanaVega) is a bright student at Carl Hayden High School whose goal is to enlist in the US military. However, his status as an undocumented citizen prevents this. Seeing an ad for an underwater robotics competition, Oscar approaches the school’s new substitute teacher, Fredi Cameron (George Lopez), who has recently joined the staff on a temporary basis. The school principal (Jamie Lee Curtis) encourages the club, and Mr. Cameron insists that if Oscar finds a few other students he will agree to mentor them through the project and enter the collegiate level competition. Between hiding from ICE, with agents now looking for him due to his application for military service, and romancing a teen crush with Karla (played by his real life wife Alexa PanaVega), Oscar recruits Lorenzo (Jose Julian), Cristian (David del Rio) and Hector (J.R. Villareal) and amidst personal dramas, attempt to achieve the impossible.
Originally titled “La Vida Robot,” the project came together under Pantelion/Lionsgate to capitalize on the unprecedented box office success of 2013’s Instructions Not Included, the success of which announced a significant market audience often underrepresented at the US box office. The film earnestly attempts to deal with an aspect of immigration not often depicted in mainstream film. But its earnestness can’t overcome the film’s unwillingness to cause discomfort and much of these proceedings feel sanitized, while scrubbed, attractive young cast members feel too glossy for the very real lives and circumstances being depicted.
Stuck in the altruistic teacher archetype, comedian George Lopez is actually quite charming and entertaining. Likewise, Jamie Lee Curtis is affectionately humorous and they exude a certain warmth in their sequences. While Marisa Tomei is as lovely as ever, she’s saddled with playing the lukewarm love interest of Lopez’s reluctant substitute teacher. And while all the adults have their scant scenarios ever on the back burner, each of its main students’ narratives feel a bit underwhelmingly realized, mostly due to the fact that the films downplays the reality of lives caught in a balancing act of normalcy and constantly facing the threat of deportation.
Carlos PenaVega’s character is central to the narrative, the catalyst for their endeavor with a wish to serve in the military (it’s a rather different portrayal of the military’s relationship to the recruitment of undocumented teens than seen in other fare, such as the undeservingly ignored 2013 indie Greencard Warriors, a film equally problematic but way more authentic). And yet, we never really feel like we get to know much about this noble person, with McNamara’s end title cards evoking much more emotion about the man than his on-screen counterpart ever conveys.
Spare Parts is well meaning, highly sanitized family fare that does relay a powerful and inspiring tale about a group of teens and people whose problems are often written off or ignored. Tomei’s character declares, “They’re told a hundred times a day in different ways how worthless they are.” So even while McNamara hasn’t made a great or even very daring film, it’s one that was worth being made, and certainly one deserving to be seen despite its formulaic, safe tone.