Friday, January 30, 2015

The Exceptionalism Of Latino Exceptionalism

A scene from Sean McNamara's true-life drama "Spare Parts".

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Friday, January 30, 2015

"Spare Parts" spends much time cheering its own effort to celebrate the true story of four Latino students at an Arizona community college who beat M.I.T. in a national underwater robot competition in 2004.  Sean McNamara's drama is regrettably rife with stereotypes and clichés about Latino achievement, parenting and success.  The film dumbs down its protagonists only to later cheaply resurrect them to phony hallowed status its weak script doesn't enable or deserve.

These kids.  Oh, they're so hopeless.  Gutter level pathetic.  That's more or less the initial refrain of Jamie Lee Curtis's high school principal character, who gleefully tells ex-private sector man turned substitute teacher Fredi Cameron (George Lopez) that most of the students at her school drop out.  Ms. Curtis's character revels in her sour statistic, mirroring the film's self-mired pitying and despair of its Latino characters.  She will later cheer as if a cheerleader but no one will be interested in the joy she expresses.

"Spare Parts", which begins crudely with a bombastic Latin music track -- as if that's the "appropriate" way to signal your audience to the stereotypical entry of a Latino environment -- champions Latino exceptionalism disingenuously through back-door channels.  The quartet of Latino students are a collection of misfits and cast-offs -- like the 2010 San Francisco Giants -- who defy odds and expectations to become champions. 

One of the undocumented quartet is forced to spurn the military, and pursues the challenge of this competition.  He will use the U.S. military uniform as a passport to monetary success.  The young men are threatened with deportation at various moments.  Mr. McNamara's accounting of this true story is dampened and trapped in the soft bigotry of low expectations, with its anchor and goodwill troubadour Mr. Lopez asked to be all things to everyone in the film.  It's an unfairly heavy load to carry but Mr. Lopez, ever watchable and entertaining here, does the very best he can.

Mr. McNamara's film views its Latino heroes as novelty figures, unique and extraordinary -- a kind of miracle.  The bleak, grimy feel of "Spare Parts" wallows in the desolation of scenes between arguing Latino member households that are given little context or insight.  It's a peek inside a household but just that, a peek, before the curtain abruptly closes for a film that traffics in expediency and so-called jokes about Latino stereotypes. 

Jokes.  That kind of dour, nervous energy -- dour and nervous best describes "Spare Parts"-- dominates.  Rather than view the Latinos in the story as people who make their mark amid adversity the film entertains stereotypes, staying rooted in lazy familiarities.  Punchlines dominate.  Montages rule.  Watching "Spare Parts" felt like an uncertain walk in the park on a Sunday afternoon.  No breeze but a cloudy, murky semi-serious atmosphere often interrupted by jocularity and stereotype.  We only learn fully about the young men and their exploits during the end credits of this guts-and-glory story, which is the best part of "Spare Parts."  By then the film's chance to meaningfully engage its audience beyond clichés and cheap laughs has come far too late.

Mr. Lopez's Fredi has a committed teacher in Gwen (Marisa Tomei) to bounce things off of but there's little fun to be had by either here.  They pantomime in one parking lot scene for idle amusement.  Both try in vain to liven up a droll film.  Their attempt has mixed results.  Their suggestive rapport, which "Spare Parts" seems to tease rather than fully embrace, doesn't develop into romance.  "I'm not dating your mother," Mr. Lopez's character says to Gwen's watchful daughter. 

"Spare Parts" however, dwells on its insistent romanticism of the lower classes in America.  The four male Latino characters are portrayed anywhere from self-deprecating to self-hating, waiting for Mr. Lopez to inspire them all.  It's near obscene that Mr. McNamara and Elissa Matsueda (who wrote "Spare Parts" based on Joshua Davis's article) don't provide more substance or insight about the young men, whose victory in the Marine Advanced Technology Education Robotics Competition was a huge one.  The film's few moments of crowd-pleasing fun feel hollow because of what has transpired before. 

With "Spare Parts" an opportunity to tell a rich, beautiful and fully-dimensional story is wasted.  And that's too bad.

Also with: Carlos PanaVega, Jose Julian, Esai Morales, David Del Rio, J.R. Villarreal, Alexa PanaVega, Steven Michael Quezada, Aubrey K. Miller.

"Spare Parts" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association for some language and violence.  Its running time is one hour and 29 minutes.

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