You’re really asking for trouble when you title your film “Spare Parts,” especially when said film is as unabashedly formulaic as the one cobbled together by helmer Sean McNamara (“Soul Surfer”) and scriptwriter Elissa Matsueda. And yet, even though it’s easy to identify all the recycled elements — bits and pieces of several inspirational-teacher scenarios, ranging from “To Sir, With Love” to “Stand and Deliver” — in this “based on a true story” concoction, there can be no denying the feel-good effect of the finished product. Word of mouth should trump mixed reviews, giving this latest Hispanic-skewing Lionsgate/Pantelion release a chance to exceed expectations and appeal to crossover audiences in a variety of platforms.
Derived from an article written by Joshua Davis for Wired magazine, “Spare Parts” spins a lightweight yet likable tale of underdogs triumphant. Specifically, it’s the story of Hispanic students from a Phoenix high school who compete in a national underwater robotics competition, and wind up winning first-place honors over formidable college teams — including the defending champs from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (That’s not, strictly speaking, a spoiler. The real-life event happened more than a decade ago and was recounted in Mary Mazzio’s 2014 documentary “Underwater Dreams.” Besides, anyone who can’t guess the outcome 15 into this narrative should go to the movies more often.)
George Lopez offers a winning mix of sincerity, inspiration and self-deprecating humor in his performance as Fredi Cameron, an unemployed engineer who takes a position as substitute teacher at Carl Hayden Community High School. In recent years, Cameron — a composite of two real-life teachers — has had trouble holding on to any job very long, for reasons withheld from the audience until late in “Spare Parts.” And, truth to tell, he doesn’t appear eager to make a long-time commitment to Carl Hayden High.
As long as he’s got the gig, however, Cameron is willing — albeit reluctantly at first — to serve as mentor, faculty adviser and (in the case of at least one youth) father figure to four disparate students who join forces to compete in the underwater robots event.
Gung-ho ROTC student Oscar Vazquez (Carlos PenaVega) initiates the project after his dreams of enlisting in the U.S. Army are dashed. (Unfortunately, he, like most of his Hispanic comrades, is, as one character euphemistically puts it, “without papers.”) Using various means of persuasion, Oscar and Cameron are able to enlist Lorenzo Santillan (Jose Julian), who usually exploits his mechanical skills to break into cars; Cristian Arcega (David Del Rio), an electronics nerd often targeted by school bullies; and Luis Arranda (Oscar Gutierrez), a gentle giant — and, it should be noted, not one of the aforementioned bullies — who worries that people think he’s as dim as he looks.
While his students scrounge for — yes, you guessed it — spare parts in thrift shops, home-improvement stores, and storage rooms on campus where all manner of debris is dumped, Cameron grows increasingly dedicated to helping them — and, predictably, steadily more involved in their lives.
Indeed, there are scarcely any genuine surprises in “Spare Parts,” a movie that often has the feel of something constructed by people ticking off items on a checklist. Teacher gets shot a romance with lovely/supportive colleague (Marisa Tomei)? Yep. A student eventually wins respect and acceptance from a disapproving father (Esai Morales)? Got it. Last-minute mishap brings comrades closer together? Sure. Teacher is almost removed from the equation when he gets a tempting job offer in his chosen profession? Of course.
Give all of that, the fact that “Spare Parts” manages to be so emotionally affecting and dramatically satisfying must be viewed as a triumph as improbable as the film’s grand finale at the underwater robotics competition. Credit should go to the well-cast and unaffectedly engaging young actors playing the members of Team Carl Hayden High, all of whom manage to infuse even the most cliched dialogue with a solid ring of truth.
Lopez is credible and compelling throughout, while Tomei makes the absolute most of an underwritten role. As the high school’s surprisingly supportive principal, Jamie Lee Curtis effortlessly steals every scene in which she appears while demonstrating even an overworked and borderline cynical bureaucrat can maintain a healthy sense of humor.
To the filmmakers’ credit, “Spare Parts” concludes with a coda that reveals the ending of this fact-based story wasn’t quite as happy in real life for some of the participants. On the other hand, the coda also unapologetically proselytizes for immigration reform, which doubtless will be well received by members of the movie’s target audience and any other reasonably sentient viewers.
The film’s lively song-studded musical soundtrack is another plus. Also worth noting: a fleeting reference to “the Enigma Decoder” that may amuse who has seen either “The Imitation Game” or “U-571.”