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A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Spare Parts is based on the true story of an underdog high school in Phoenix that entered a robotics competition against M.I.T. and other universities. Like the documentary Underwater Dreams (which tells the same story), the movie explains how the mostly undocumented Mexican-American students managed, against the odds, to excel in a competition that seemingly favored wealthier, more privileged teams. There's some cursing (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.
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What's the story?
Based on a true story, SPARE PARTS is set in Phoenix's Carl Hayden Community High School -- a school full of underprivileged, mostly undocumented Latino teens. 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 and hopes winning might help him earn a scholarship or land a job. Robotics club adviser Mr. Cameron (George Lopez) is a substitute who wasn't really expecting anyone to show up to the club, but he works with Oscar to recruit other students: computer expert Cristian (David Del Rio); mechanics whiz Lorenzo (Jose Julian), who must participate or face suspension; and Hector (J.R. Villareal), the muscle who can lug the huge robot around. The guys overcome problem after problem, from a tiny budget to unsympathetic parents who think they're wasting their time, to compete against some of the best schools in the country.
Is it any good?
Anyone who's seen an underdog story knows from the very beginning that these kids are going to triumph -- otherwise there wouldn't be a film about them. But despite the story's predictability, it's still a heartwarming (if occasionally cheesy) tale about a group of people who are often maligned: undocumented immigrants. The Mexican-American teens depicted in the movie face seemingly insurmountable odds, but they manage to do their best with less money and fewer opportunities than their competition.
Those familiar with the real story (and the excellent documentary about it, Underwater Dreams) will note that the Hollywood version includes many fictionalized elements. While some are eye-rollingly unnecessary -- i.e. the promise of romance between Lopez and a fellow caring teacher played by Marisa Tomei -- the heart of the story is true to the real events. PenaVega (Big Time Rush) gets to romance his real-life wifem Alexa PenaVega, who plays Oscar's understanding girlfriend Karla -- a U.S. citizen. Although Lopez is no Edward James Olmos, he's a good fit as the team's adviser, and Jamie Lee Curtis is breezy and fun as the kind but no-nonsense principal who's thrilled to finally have some good news. Unlike the documentary, Spare Parts stays away from any overtly politicized view of immigration, but the message is the same: Bright, clever students are everywhere, and they can succeed given a chance.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about Spare Parts' David vs. Goliath theme. Why is it so compelling to see an underdog win? How are the teens from Carl Hayden High underdogs?
If you also saw Underwater Dreams, what do you think of the changes made in this version? Why do you think filmmakers might tweak the truth? And if you didn't see the documentary, does watching this make you want to check out the original story?
What are some other movies about underdog students who exceed expectations and overcome obstacles? What are some of your favorites?
- In theaters: January 16, 2015
- On DVD or streaming: May 5, 2015
- Cast: George Lopez, Marisa Tomei, Jamie Lee Curtis
- Director: Sean McNamara
- Studio: Lionsgate
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: Friendship, High School, Robots, Science and Nature
- Run time: 83 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: some language and violence
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