Based on a true story from a 2005 Wired magazine article, Spare Parts (2015) is a movie about four Hispanic high school students who started a robotics club. With no experience, 800 bucks, used car parts and a dream, this rag tag team of underdogs entered a national robotics contest, competing against some of the best schools in the nation including the reigning robotics champions of MIT.
Spare Parts is set in Phoenix, Arizona, at Carl Hayden Community High School, which is full of underprivileged, mostly undocumented Latino teens. Like the 1988 film Stand and Deliver, (also based on a true story, of inner-city AP Calculus students), the Spare Parts movie shows how a group of Mexican-American teens managed, against the odds, to excel in an area that seemingly favored wealthier, more privileged students.
As the story goes, after straight-edge ROTC star Oscar (Carlos PenaVega) realizes that he won’t be able to enlist in the Army due to his lack of a birth certificate, he sees a flyer for an underwater robotics competition. Now that his military dreams have been dashed, he hopes that winning the contest might help him earn a scholarship or land a job.
Fredi Cameron (George Lopez) is a substitute teacher with an engineering background who essentially gets suckered into being the robotics team coach. He works with Oscar to recruit three more students: computer whiz Cristian (David Del Rio); mechanical genius Lorenzo (Jose Julián); and Hector (J.R. Villareal), the muscle who can lug the huge robot around.
All four students have different interests and goals in life, but it’s great to see how they combine their strengths and work together to overcome one problem after another, from technical glitches to unsympathetic parents who think they’re wasting their time. Compounding these difficulties is the fact that everyone is from a low-income family, and the high school itself has very little money.
PenaVega, Del Rio, Julián, and Villareal all play their characters well. George Lopez is best known as a comedian, but he does a great job as a dramatic actor in this movie, where he shares the spotlight with Marisa Tomei and Jamie Lee Curtis. Tomei is a potential love interest and Curtis is the school principal – albeit a kooky one! It’s always great to see educators taking their role seriously while serving as caring cheerleaders for their students.
Research has shown that kids of all abilities succeed when we hold them to high expectations, and this movie demonstrates that can-do attitude even in spite of tough odds and unexpected setbacks. Spare Parts is a film that could be targeted to students in STEM classes as an inspirational as well as educational one. Its main goal is to show how anyone can rise from bad circumstances to surprise everyone.
There’s some cursing in this movie (mostly in Spanish, with words like “hell” in English), a couple of scenes of adults drinking and teens smoking, some kissing, and a few fist fights. But overall the film is a feel-good starting point for discussions with mature tweens and teens about issues related to class, expectations, and immigration. (I personally had no problem with the immigration plot points in the film, as that’s probably the way it looks through their eyes; but some viewers may not like seeing ICE portrayed in a negative light.)
The movie has some memorable and funny moments (George Lopez gets to do a little comedy after all), while the screenplay does a good job of keeping to the gist of the story. The epilogue points out the differences in the film versus the true story, and updates viewers on what happened in the main characters’ lives since 2004.
I can’t help but compare Spare Parts (2015) to Stand and Deliver (1988), which is one of my favorites. This newer, cleaner movie doesn’t have the same awesome gritty style as its predecessor, but it’s still pretty good. They are both uplifting true stories. One takes place in Los Angeles, the other in Phoenix; one is about math and the other is about robotics. If you like movies related to STEM, or education in general, or Hispanic characters, you should definitely watch both of them.