The film, “Spare Parts” is both emotionally uplifting and disheartening, and a film that can resonate with the viewer on both these levels is worth watching. Based on the true story of four undocumented students and their quest to compete in a national robotics championship against the likes of prestigious, well-funded universities such as MIT, the film recounts a compelling tale of the underdog, which is why it made a successful article when it first appeared in Wired magazine in 2005 and a popular book written by the same author, Joshua Davis. (A book review by us can be found here). There is something fundamentally relatable about the pursuit of individual dreams and Hollywood capitalized on this phenomenon, while to its credit, showed that part of this dream remains unfulfilled.
|Center for American Progress "Reel Screen" Event, Jan 13, 2015|
As expected, some creative license was taken in plot and character development. The additions of Oscar-winner Marisa Tomei as a potential love interest and Jamie Lee Curtis as a hardworking principal, help to add levity and depth to the film demonstrating that no one achieves their dreams solely on their own, and even the most driven and talented among us need support. George Lopez, the producer and lead actor of the film, does not try to make this a “Stand and Deliver” type film where the focus is primarily on the teacher. He shares the screen with a talented cast of young actors, Carlos PenaVega (Oscar Vasquez), David Del Rio (Cristian Arcega), and José Julián (Luis Santillan) who were convincing in their slow-to-grow camaraderie. (One of them in particular, José Julián, was a shoe-in for a former student of mine). The tradeoff for those filmmaking decisions was a less accurate portrayal of the story as written by Davis, but the movie gains an emotional tenor that at times felt missing from the book. As you watch the film version, you are rooting for the boys even if you know what happens, and every stumbling block they encounter in building their robot seems only to vaguely echo the enormous blocks they face in their home lives, at school, their aspirations, and US immigration laws and policy.
It’s important to remember while watching this film, that it is not just a story of four undocumented youths; it is the story of thousands of undocumented youth. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that there are roughly 1.7 million undocumented students under age 30, who are enrolled in high school, have graduated or obtained a GED, or are currently enrolled in elementary or middle school. Of those, each year 65,000 graduate from American high schools, and they face the bleak landscape encountered by Oscar Vasquez, Lorenzo Santillan, Christian Arcega, and Luis Aranda when they graduated high school, albeit with several state-based DREAM acts that have been passed which make it possible though not easy for immigrant students to access higher education. According to the National Council of State Legislatures, since 2001, 18 states have passed legislation that permits undocumented students to pay the same tuition rates as their peers, and recognizing the financial barriers these students face, four states – Texas, California, New Mexico, and Washington -- have passed laws allow undocumented students to access publicly funded education grants. Still, three states—Arizona, Georgia and Indiana—prohibit undocumented students from receiving in-state tuition rates while Alabama and South Carolina do not allow undocumented students to enroll at any public postsecondary institution.
The conclusion of this film touches upon the political circumstances that have so profoundly shaped these young lives. Images of Senator Dick Durbin [D-IL], chief proponent for the Dream Act, are shown at the film’s end, and at a recent Washington DC screening event on January 13, 2015 sponsored by the Center for American Progress, the Senator along with Oscar Vazquez, George Lopez, and Carlos PenaVega were also present and spoke not only about the film, but also about its ability to reach a wide audience and its potential to change mindsets. In a Q&A session after the film, Lopez made clear his hope for the film to reach grander heights than a “feel-good” Hollywood movie. “A team of four becomes a team of hundreds of thousands”, he said, referring to the viewers of the film who may be spurred to action. Vazquez remarked, “I know there are quite a few people going through this right now…Hopefully this gives them the shot they deserve.”
Prepare to be entertained and informed while watching this film. The film will be released in theaters on Friday, January 16, 2015.
For more information on the educational attainment of undocumented youth, barriers to college access, as well as policy recommendations, please read a comprehensive report “Removing Barriers to Higher Education for Undocumented Students” written by Zenen Jaimes Perez from the Center for American Progress passed out to those who attended the film screening.