“Spare Parts” is a pleasant enough run-of-the-mill outsiders-beat-the-odds dramedy in the “Race the Sun” mold.
It’s about undocumented high school kids who enter a big robot-building competition, and make a splash in that state most hostile to illegal immigration — Arizona. So it’s a little more concerned with making a statement than with covering new ground in an original and entertaining way.
An ROTC go-getter (Carlos PenaVega) needs to get into the Army to help his undocumented family make ends meet, but not having a birth certificate derails that. So Oscar casts about for another path to financial security, and settles on an underwater robotics challenge open to high school and college teams.
Maybe the substitute science teacher, Dr. Cameron (George Lopez) will help. He’s an unemployed engineer, a sad Latino who won’t explain his checkered job history to the principal (Jamie Lee Curtis) who interviews him for the job. And Dr. Cameron, new to teaching, is skeptical at Oscar’s pitch about a robotic remote operated vehicle (ROV) designed to explore shipwrecks.
“You know this is the desert, right?”
But if Oscar can assemble a team Cameron will “play the ‘Don Quixote’ thing.”
That team-building is some of the funniest stuff in this Sean “Soul Surfer” McNamara film. Oscar persuades the bullied tech nerd Christian (David Del Rio) to join. Dr. Cameron blackmails the hustler/gadget whiz/car mechanic Lorenzo (José Julián) to pitch in, and they lure Luis, the big-hearted-slow-witted football player (Oscar Guitierrez), because they need some muscle. Not just for fending off bullies, but to help lift the ROV.
The “true story” element of “Spare Parts” that’s most amusing is the off-the-shelf/offbeat way they approach building a robot with little budget. They scavenge, hit the thrift shops and the home improvement store for PVC pipe and cheap trolling motors.
And they fight, because Oscar has everything riding on this, Lorenzo is struggling with a disapproving dad (Esai Morales), Christian is still dodging bullies and Luis has to understand the complex design concepts they’re putting to use because there is a team interview part of the competition.
Lopez dials down his stand-up comic/sitcom ready shtick, only letting it pop up in scenes with the testy, single-mom computer-programmer-assistant principal, played by Marisa Tomei.
“Is your mom at home?” he asks her kid. “We have a coding lesson. That’s not even a euphemism.”
If you’ve ever seen “Stand and Deliver” or the lone comedy on Halle Berry’s resume, “Race the Sun” (about underprivileged teens building an electric car for a competition), you know how this goes. The nation’s premiere engineering schools — M.I.T., Va. Tech — find themselves and their hi-tech ROVs in battle with a junk-mobile designed by plucky Spanish speakers.
The tired, tried and true trip that gets them there is nothing special. But “Spare Parts” makes its point about America’s attitude toward this disposable corner of our population, and does it with heart, if not a lot of laughs or originality.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some language and violence
Cast: George Lopez, Carlos PenaVega, Marisa Tomei, José Julián, Jamie Lee Curtis, David Del Rio, Alexa PenaVega, Oscar Gutierrez
Credits: Directed by Sean McNamara, screenplay by Elissa Matsueda . A Pantelion release.
Running time: 1:50