This review is also up at Channel 24
What it's about
An out-of-work engineer takes up a substitute teacher job at a severely under-funded, mismanaged public school of mostly Hispanic, sometimes illegal, immigrants but when a diverse group of four students approach him to help them enter a highly competitive robotics competition, he soon finds himself becoming embroiled in his young students' lives far more than he ever expected. Based, somewhat loosely, on a true story.
What we thought
While there is admittedly what to be sniffy about in this quite obvious and clichéd (yet still mostly true) feel-good drama, I nonetheless found Spare Parts to be one of the most charming and pleasantly surprising minor gems to come out so far this year. Faint praise, perhaps, but that seems oddly fitting for a film that is this unassumingly lovely.
Directed by Sean McNamara, a director who has directed some fifty-four different films and TV shows over twenty-five years, none of which having made any real impact whatsoever, and written by Joshua Davis, who is known far more for his arm-wrestling career (well, “known”) than for his near-non-existent screenwriting career, you would be excused for not expecting much from their first collaboration. Sure, it features some relatively big names like Marisa Tomei, Jamie Lee Curtis and George Lopez among its cast but that alone is hardly enough to be any sort of guarantee of quality. And that's before you even get to that all-too-often terrifying phrase: “based on an inspiring true story...”
And yet, for all of its perhaps predictable flaws and failings, Spare Parts turned out to be really kind of wonderful. First, while Tomei and Curtis are on light but very fine form and George Lopez has finally convinced me of his charms as a leading screen presence, the four unknown kids at the centre of the film turn in some seriously impressive work, being both convincing and very, very likeable in roles that could so easily have been little more than stock stereotypes.
But then, being far better than it looks on paper is sort of the film's modus operandi. Taking a step back, it looks for all the world like Spare Parts has a plot that we have seen thousands of times before, fairly two-dimensional characters, undeniably creaky dialogue and a look and feel that is the very definition of televisual. And yet, unavoidable TV-movie aesthetic aside, these flaws don't really detract too much from what is actually going on screen. It's not that they disappear exactly, but they do seem far less critical than they really should do.
As such, while the film piles on the clichés of the genre in the forms of misunderstood teenagers, distant and strict parents, “unexpected” friendships, romantic entanglements and, of course, underdog victories, instead of becoming exasperated by the sheer obviousness of everything, you find yourself being swept along by both the film's obvious charm and by its willingness to embrace, even celebrate in, its own genericness. Also, because the film clearly has great affection for its ragtag characters, it's impossible for us, as viewers, not to go along with them too.
So, yes, there is absolutely nothing new here and if you put on your “critical hat” for even two seconds, it becomes glaringly obvious how much it gets wrong. But perhaps there is something to be said for the comfort of familiarity and the very fact that you really don't want to look at the film through anything but rose-tinted lenses, kind of tells you how much it gets right.