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Spare Parts (2015)
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by Jay Seaver

"Everyday pieces put together fairly well."
3 stars

If I believed in guilty pleasures, I might count movies like "Spare Parts" among them, even though there's not much worth feeling bad about where it's concerned. Sure, it breaks almost no new ground at all, following its formula closer than it really needs to. On the other hand, it does so with general good humor and without being patronizing, and if you can't enjoy a science-underdogs story that avoids the pitfalls, then here can't be much that makes you happy.

The underdogs in this case are students at an overcrowded, underfunded community high school in Phoenix, Arizona. Dr. Fredi Cameron (George Lopez) has just taken on a four-month gig as a substitute teacher, technically supposed to advise a club that has no members until Oscar Vazquez (Carlos PenaVega), unable to enlist in the army despite his excellent JROTC record because he cannot produce a birth certificate, shows up with a flyer about an underwater robotics competition. They wind up recruiting others for the team - math wiz Cristian Arcega (David Del Rio), mechanic Lorenzo Santillan (Jose Julian), and Cristian's sometime-protector Luis Arranda (Oscar Guitierrez) - but challenges naturally arise, both from their nonexistent budget and from the fact that all four teens are undocumented.

Director Sean McNamara is a workhorse - he has three other movies scheduled to come out in 2015 - mostly working in children's television and direct-to-video work, and even the occasional film like this or Soul Surfer that sees theatrical release is in the same family-friendly category; it's pretty far from all gems. He and screenwriter Elissa Matseuda (working from an article in Wired by Joshua Davis) know what they're going for here, though, and the combination of experience and efficiency means that the movie is a fairly well-oiled machine, and there's a pretty good idea of where the line is between entertaining kids and patronizing them. The story is straightforward, but there's no talking down to the audience, and both technical challenges and the difficulties of living in these kids' situations are presented with clarity. The jokes are clean and safe, but land well enough.

It's also kind of impressive how the four teenagers can have their similar stories not feel repetitive. They're a nice group, with Carlos PenaVega doing well to give the strait-laced Oscar a would-be military bearing and a bit of an attitude without making him uptight or unlikable, while Jose Julian does well as the scruffy counterpart who may benefit from a bit of respect. David Del Rio's Cristian and Oscar Guitierrez's Luis are another complementary pair, the former the sort of smart kid who rubs people the wrong way and the latter the big guy everyone assumes is slow, and they both convince both as part of the team and creating some pathos outside of it. Rounding out the youthful class is Carlos's real-life wife Alexa, playing Oscar's new girlfriend.

The actors playing the adults aren't bad either. George Lopez gives a pretty laid-back performance as Fredi, a little wobbly when the more dramatic moments come but giving the younger cast a solid base to play against, but also doing some nice work against Esai Morales a Lorenzo's father. Marisa Tomei takes a role that could potentially be thankless - the computer science teacher who both serves as a love interest for Fredi and a way to not make engineering seem like the sole province of the guys - and plays it with a lot of charm and humor. Jamie Lee Curtis is an energetic scene-stealer as the school's principal.

You can feel the good intentions radiating off this movie by the adults' descriptions, and there are times when adult viewers will likely find it rather lightweight - McNamara and Matseuda do their best to smooth a lot of hard edges off. It results in Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents being treated as sort of mild boogeymen, for example, and a lot of things feeling unresolved and left for the updates on the real-life students who inspired the story left for the end credits. On the other hand, it's kind of nice that the big contest does not wind up over-dramatized, and the audience can just enjoy kids from the desert trying to operate robots underwater.

"Kind of nice" describes the movie in general, but that's no bad thing - the world can use that. "Spare Parts" never strays far from the story's template, but it's a good story worth telling. Not every family movie needs to push the envelope or try to sneak things for the parents past the kids.

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originally posted: 01/18/15 03:42:27
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  16-Jan-2015 (PG-13)
  DVD: 05-May-2015



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